Interview to JOSE LUIS PONS
Industrial Engineer from the University of Navarra (1992), he obtained a PhD in Physical Sciences from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in 1997. In 1999 he obtained the position of Senior Scientist of the Higher Council of Scientific Research at the Institute of Industrial Automation. After briefly occupying in 2007 the position of Scientific Researcher in the same center, since 2008 he is Research Professor at the CSIC, initially at the Automation and Robotics Center and since July 2014 at the Cajal Institute. He currently directs the Neuro-Rehabilitation Group at the center, where research is carried out in the field of technology at the service of physical rehabilitation and the functional assessment of neurological disorders. His scientific interests cover areas such as Rehabilitation Robotics, neuroprosthetics, neurosciences and motor control.
Coordinator of more than a dozen projects from the Fifth Framework Program, expert evaluator of European projects and collaborator of the Division of Coordination, evaluation and scientific and technical monitoring of the State Agency for Research.
Approximately 20 years ago you focused your research on bioengineering, as a point of union between engineering and medicine. Initially it was focused on the field of upper limb prosthetics but the line of research quickly evolved into robotic exoskeletons. In layman’s terms, what is the exoskeleton and what are its main applications?
A robotic exoskeleton is a robot that could be for both upper and lower limbs although there are recently groups that extend it to lumbar areas. They have joints that are arranged in parallel with the anatomical joints. Apply forces on the segments of the extremities in order to enhance the ability of human movement. If they are applied to people with neurological damage, the objective is to rehabilitate physical disorders, if they are applied to healthy subjects, the purpose is to enhance the ability to move beyond natural ones or to protect corporal structures from excessive efforts.
On the occasion of the concession of the H2020 project “INBOTS”, you have come to the delegation to a meeting with the European Commission and with EU Robotics. Could you give us more details about the meeting and the project?
INBOTS CSA is a Coordination and Support Action that will focus on analyzing horizontal aspects related to the development, implementation and use of what we call interactive robots. The exoskeletons are an example of these robots, although we will also study social and service robots. Among other aspects we will analyze ethical, legal and socio-economic issues related to these robots. We also intend to study aspects related to its certification and regulation and develop training programs from pre-school to university and post-graduate studies in the field of interactive robotics. The European Commission has asked us that the results of the project have the form of a White Paper in the different topics addressed to ensure a greater impact of the results.
EU Robotics is since 2013 a “contractual PPP”. For those who do not know this world of acronyms and such diverse organizations, how would you explain the usefulness of PPPs or public-private partnerships?
The European Commission has created, in several scientific-technological areas, public-private partnerships (PPP) in order to define the European scientific-technological strategy in these areas. In the field of robotics, the European Commission has partnered with EU Robotics to create SPARC, the PPP in this area. UE Robotics is a private non-profit association that collaborates with the European Commission within the framework of SPARC to define the strategic plan for the development of robotics for Europe. Within the SPARC framework, for example, the strategic agenda and the “Multi-annual Roadmap, MAR” have been defined, which define priority areas and inform the different R + D + i calls in H2020 for the area of Robotics.
After your successful participation in the last call of H2020, you come across three projects that start in January 2018. As you mentioned before, one of them is “INBOTS”, a coordination and support action (CSA) whose purpose is to produce a White Book on robotics in Europe from different points of view (legal, ethical, economic …). In your opinion, which area is the least advanced in this regard? And the most developed?
The scientific-technological developments in the field of Interactive Robotics, object of INBOTS, create regulatory and certification needs that in turn are based on ethical, legal, socio-economic aspects. Companies, especially SMEs, in this sector demand support measures in the field of the development of specific business models for this sector and training in new technologies. In parallel, it is necessary to educate society in general so that it has objective information about what is happening in the field of Robotics. All these aspects are to a greater or lesser extent developed, what is involved is to give a structured approach.
Another of the projects awarded: “EXTEND”, is a research and innovation action (RIA) that will develop implantable interfaces with external devices. With what kind of people are you going to try it? And to date, what kind of disabilities or diseases have had the best results with the exoskeleton?
The development of robust, efficient and transparent interfaces for people to interact with assistive technology (exoskeletons, neuroprosthetics …) is one of the bottlenecks we face. We intend in EXTEND to develop implantable interfaces with minimally invasive techniques. The implants will be located in peripheral areas (the muscles that allow our limbs to move) and will have the capacity to measure the bioelectric signals as well as to stimulate the muscles. We intend to test them in two applications, first to establish the interface with lower limb exoskeletons to assist the locomotion of people with spinal cord injury, and therefore have paraplegia, and secondly to attenuate the pathological tremors associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor.
Usually you get to manufacture the prototype and to carry out some tests with patients. What difficulties do you encounter from that moment? What do you miss in Spain, in Europe?
Yes, the projects we work with make it possible to achieve a TRL (Technology Readiness Level) around 6, 7 which in practical terms means that we developed prototypes that we tested in pre-clinical studies with a small number of patients. What is needed is the industrial environment and the institutional support to develop these technologies, for which the proof-of-concept stage has been reached, up to the level of clinical validation that would allow its commercialization, after reaching a TRL9
The third project that has just been granted “EUROBENCH” has obtained 8 million financing, 3 million for the consortium and 5 million to finance third party projects, putting into practice the so-called “cascade funding”. It is the first time you are going to coordinate a project with this type of financing, what do you think of the system in principle?
The “cascade funding” scheme gives the consortium the ability to organize European research in a specific and limited area through the management of calls that allow the structured participation of third institutions. In our case, the European Commission has put at our disposal € 5 million to organize the participation of third parties to develop a reference framework for the objective evaluation of robots that move biped (humanoid) or that assist people to move around (exoskeletons, prosthetics). The system allows a lot of flexibility from the point of view of giving us the ability to prioritize research lines while being very guaranteeive, that is, applying the same principles that the European Commission applies in the management of research funds. In return, the consortiums have to assume a much greater role in the field of management and administration.
You have been coordinating European projects since the Fifth Framework Program. Do you see the Framework Program becoming simpler? Is the “simplification” that the European Commission preaches?
As coordinator of European projects I have not noticed the simplification to which it refers. It is possible that the simplification is for the management of the programs by the European Commission itself. Suffice the example of the project to which we have just referred. With the “cascade funding” scheme, the consortium assumes the role of the European Commission, discharging it from the work it usually carries out in the management of funding calls (call and publicity thereof, evaluation management, contract management) and monitoring of actions).
In one of your talks about “the exoskeleton” you used a quote from Santiago Ramón y Cajal: “every man can be, if he proposes it, a sculptor of his own brain”. Do you think it is easier to “sculpt the brain” when you have managed to stand up?
To stand up, rehabilitating a person who has suffered neurological damage, involves sculpting not only the brain but in general its central nervous system as a whole through the neuronal plasticity that we all possess and that allows us to learn. Beyond the associated motor changes, the fact that a person who is permanently confined to a wheelchair can get up has undoubted psychological benefits that also “sculpt our brains”.