Assistant Professor Ravi Balasubramanian specializes in robotics and human control systems. His primary research goals are twofold: 1) make robots operate robustly in unstructured settings, (such as outdoors) and in built environments not specifically designed to accommodate robotic operations, and 2) develop a deeper understanding of the neural control and biomechanics of the human body. He integrates fundamental control and design techniques as well as human-subject experiments to study human performance. Application areas include robotic grasping and manipulation, mobile robotics, human-robot interaction, and rehabilitation.
“My research blends robotic and human functions. I draw inspiration from humans to improve robots, and from robots to enhance human capabilities and improve quality of life, especially for people with disabilities,” said Balasubramanian, who directs the Robotics and Human Control Systems Laboratory. For instance, he envisions robots tasked with picking up and manipulating heavy objects in warehouses or factories, thereby reducing workplace injuries. “I want to enable robots to do that work reliably with partial information in an unstructured, fluid setting,” he said. In addition, seniors or people with disabilities might use robots to assist them with daily activities. In the context of robotic inspiration for human systems, he is developing implantable mechanisms, such as pulleys and linkages, which integrate with tendon networks to enhance orthopedic surgery.
Balasubramanian joined Oregon State in 2011. He received his B.Eng. in mechanical engineering from the National University of Singapore in 2000, and earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in 2003 and 2006, respectively.
Robo-inspiration for improving human capabilities drives one of his primary research projects, which is funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant and a Department of Defense congressionally directed medical research program. The work involves designing implantable passive mechanisms for orthopedic surgery to correct high median-ulnar nerve palsy. Patients afflicted with the debilitating condition cannot contract the muscles that flex the fingers and lose the ability to grasp objects. To correct the problem, surgeons transplant tendons from the fingers and connect them to the wrist extensor muscle. If the procedure is successful, patients regain the ability to curl all their fingers simultaneously, but they still can’t flex them individually or adapt to objects of different shapes and sizes.
Balasubramanian proposes re-attaching the relocated tendons using artificial linkages that allow greater freedom of motion. “We’re constructing triangular, differential mechanisms between the muscle and the fingers. As the wrist extensor muscle contracts, the triangles rotate and allow each finger to adapt as needed to objects they’re grasping,” he explained.
Throughout his life, Balasubramanian has nurtured an abiding interest in the physics of movement, which led him to study mechanical engineering. “I realized I could study the physics of movement of a car or some other device like a robot, or I could study the physics of movement of the human body,” he said. “I’ve done both because the physics of movement, whether it’s of a person or a machine, is all related.”
Balasubramanian thrives on the inherent challenges of research, which force him to test his intellectual boundaries. “It allows us to really find out who we are and what our limits are, and that fascinates me,” he said. When it comes to teaching, he believes that sparking student enthusiasm is essential to learning. In addition to ensuring that his students grasp the core concepts of their class work, he also focuses on how to identify and tackle problems, emphasizing that various approaches to problem solving are available. “There’s probably an optimal way to solve a given problem, but one must be tireless in exploring the possibilities,” he said. “The important thing is that there are no boundaries to knowledge, and lots of interesting stuff comes up when you start putting multiple disciplines together.” For his own inspiration, Balasubramanian turns to an ancient Indian saying: Let noble thoughts come from all directions.
In 2016, Balasubramanian received the prestigious NSF CAREER Grant, which recognizes junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education, and the integration of the two to forward the mission of their organization. He also received the Outstanding Researcher Award from the National Institutes of Health National Center for Simulation in Rehabilitation Research in 2012. Other funding sources include the Oregon State University Venture Development Fund, the Department of Defense DARPA Robotics Challenge, and several businesses.
— Steve Frandzel