To respond to changes in society and the explosive growth in new technologies, ESME Sudria is–this semester–launching five new majors that give our students access to the future of engineering. Our major in Biomechanics and Medical Robotics–developed in partnership with Sup’Biotech, the IONIS Group’s engineering school specializing in biotechnology–trains students to use their skills in the healthcare sector, by designing complex systems that can stimulate or substitute for the functions of the human body’s natural systems. This goal is both a human and a technological one, and it’s one that research professor Alex Caldas–the coordinator for this major–is passionate about. The program is part of our Biotech & Health track, that begins in our preparatory cycle programs.
Why is it appealing for engineers to study biomechanics and medical robotics?Alex Caldas:
As an engineer, first there’s the technological aspect which allows students to work on interesting, cutting-edge topics, for example surgical robots, exoskeletons, and prosthetics. Then there’s the health/medical side, which shows us that behind the use of these new technologies, there’s a “humanist” goal–we’re doing robotics here, but our number one goal is to save lives, help patients, and simplify doctors’ lives. That brings a lot of meaning to the job of being an engineer.
Do students also have to have a passion for health care, medicine, and biology to enter this major?
Yes. For example, there are also anatomy courses in this major. That’s why we offer it in partnership with Sup’Biotech, because they’re experts in the biology aspect.
What courses can students take in this major?
During their fourth year, there are traditional robotics classes along with courses focusing on biomechanics, and for example in those courses you can study the mechanical properties of biological tissue. Other courses focus specifically on the human body. In the students’ fifth year, this major narrows in on various aspects such as robotics applied to the medical sector, or making a functional exoskeleton. Also in that year, students take courses that focus on control systems. Because you don’t control a medical robot in the same way as an industrial robot. For example, if you want to replicate the movement of a human arm with a prosthesis, that movement has to be fine-tuned and not robotic. Hence the appeal of offering students the option to take neuroscience and Machine Learning classes. Students in this major have a very wide variety of courses to choose from, while focusing on medical topics.
Does the major also include hands-on projects?
Yes, of course, and some of those are going to start in April. These projects might focus on various things. For example, students like help me create a prosthetic hand. The goal is that–in time–this prosthesis could be controlled using the patient’s brain waves, with the patient wearing a helmet to control his or her prosthetic hand through brain waves.
Is this project-based component a part of all five years of the Biotech & Health track?
Yes, definitely. Beginning with their preparatory cycle program, students work on a prosthetic knee project, which gives them a taste of what this major is like. It involves giving the students various scientific articles. Then they’re asked to reflect on how to improve the retraining and physical therapy process for that knee, which can often cause complications. Recently students have suggested various ideas and discussion topics, such as creating an orthotic for the knee; it’s a device that fits over the knee, and helps patients do their retraining and physical therapy exercises, or sensors placed around the knee to allow the physical therapist to see if the treatments are going well, or not.
It seems like there are still many things to invent and create in this field, which combines engineering and health.
Definitely. It’s really a growth area. It’s a very dynamic sector, due to more widespread changes in mechanical robotics–for a long time, robots were always large and heavy. Now, we’re more likely to be making light robots that are less precise and slower, but they allow us to perform movements in a safer way, so they can be connected to a living thing. We’re talking here about creating collaborative robots, that can perform medical procedures, or prostheses. It’s a new field of application, and we’re realizing the great potential that robots have. Additionally, with the current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re realizing that robots could be used to help out with various care protocols in hospitals, or it might be possible to develop a low cost assisted breathing solution. There is still so much left to do!
You’re going to use guest instructors from outside ESME Sudria in this major. Who are they?
Students will have the opportunity for regular contact with high-level people from our school’s partner institutions, such as GE Healthcare employees. GE Healthcare is a leading group in the medical sector. We also collaborate with staff from startups like Bone 3D, which specializes in additive manufacturing and biomechanics. We’ll do that through conferences, technology presentations, and final projects.
Will the students also be in contact with healthcare professionals?
Of course! The goal is to make this major career-focused, and in order to do that, we need to allow students to be in contact with healthcare professionals. Some students will work directly with doctors at the end of their educational programs. So they must be able to talk to them, to understand their needs, to speak the same language, etc.
Students in this major might be looking at technical careers like biomechanical or robotics engineering, but not only those careers.
That’s correct. In addition to technical careers focused on R&D, other, less technology-based careers are also open to our graduates. Those might include business engineering or product ownership. The idea is also to allow our students to use their education in another way: because they know how to talk to doctors, they can be an excellent bridge between the medical and engineering worlds.