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Columbia Area High Schoolers Build Physical Therapy Device

The Army Ants youth robotics team, consisting of 35 teens from schools in Missouri, consulted with experts and professional therapists to build a smart compression stocking for people recovering from knee surgery.

Amy Ants Youth Robotics team members from left, Zihao Zhou, 16, Akhilan Elangovan, 16, and Saathvik Kannan, 15, work on their inertial leg measurement sensor that includes a gyroscope and accelerometer, which is placed inside a compression sock to send a signal to a computer to give real-time information about movement of a patient being studied after knee replacement surgery.
Don Shrubshell/Tribune/TNS
(TNS) — Three in one group worked out potential glitches in the prototype, while others logged activities.

Another prepared a presentation for the business pitch, and some others in another room worked with conductive threads and snaps that could end up on the prototype.

The Army Ants youth robotics team worked diligently Wednesday in the University of Missouri Agriculture Engineering Building as the deadline approaches for judging in the FIRST Innovation Challenge. The Army Ants entry is among the finalists in the international competition.

The team is developing its Sensor Platform for Orthopedic Compliance after Knee Surgery, or SPOCKS. It's a smart compression stocking with sensors inside that measure quadricep activation, range of motion and weight bearing. It's meant to help people recovering from total knee replacement surgery to help the patients regain full use of their knees.

Sensors in the stocking connect by Bluetooth with smart phone applications that the patient and the patient's doctor can view.

With the project, the Army Ants are expanding beyond robotics.

Akhilan Elangovan, Zihao Zhou and Saathvik Kannan worked with the sensors in the prototype. Zihao and Akhilan are 16-year-old Rock Bridge High School students, and Saathvik 15, is a Hickman High School student.

"This is an inertial measurement unit," Akhilan said, holding a sensor. "It has an accelerometer and a gyroscope. The gyroscope measures rotation and the accelerometer measures motion."

"There's also an EMG sensor that measures muscle activation," Akhilan said, referring to electromyography.

The activity is charted on a graph to measure improvement, he said.

Will this device require a patent?

"We're working on it," Zihao said.

The Army Ants team consulted with experts, including some from the Mizzou Biojoint Center, for their project

The team consulted with adult experts in developing the device, including some with Mizzou Biojoint Center, physical therapists and an occupational therapist. They cited Jaya Ghosh, program director of the Coulter Biomedical Accelerator, for providing guidance.

Luke Sabath, a 17-year-old homeschool student, worked on a presentation for a business pitch that is part of the competition. Estimates are that there will be a million knee replacement surgeries annually by 2030, he said.

"It's a large and growing market," Luke said.

His presentation includes such details of how much Medicare could reimburse providers for the device.

There are other devices similar to this, he said. The only one that lists a price has it listed at $770, while the Army Ants device can be sold for around $330, Luke said.

The other devices measure only range of motion, but don't include weight-bearing or quadriceps activation, he said.

The other companies set the price based on demand, said team mentor Andy Winslow, a software engineer. The cost of the Army Ants device is based on the cost to produce it, plus some markup. The students aren't motivated by greed, he said.

"These kids have done a lot of work," Winslow said.

In its "ask," Army Ants is seeking $125,000 for a study of 50 patients.

"Missouri Orthopaedic Institute is interested in partnering with us for a feasibility study," Winslow said.

Other adults helping the team are MU faculty members Anand Chandrasekhar and Kevin Gillis, who has the title of chief mentor emeritus.

Jessica Barnard, 18, a homeschool student, was working out ways to integrate the conductive thread and snaps into the prototype.

Chandrasekhar said many different abilities were needed on the project.

Caroline Ma, 16, a student at Rock Bridge High School, was working on the engineering notebook, a log of documenting every activity. She said it's primarily for use if judges ask questions about specific things.

Comfort was part of the consideration in creating the prototype, Caroline said.

"We have thought about different lifestyles that people have" when considering wearers and required durability, Caroline said.

Team members have worked until 2 a.m. to meet some goals, she said.

"I'm really proud of what we've done so far," Caroline said.

Army Ants started in 2010-11 and includes 35 students. It's a 4-H-affiliated club, managed by the not-for-profit Columbia Educational Robotics Foundation.

In less than two weeks, on June 30, the team will learn how its entry performed in the competition. Judging will take place over a few days before that.

©2021 Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.