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Engineering ALEX, volunteering with Robogals

Women in Engineering By Jocelyn Choy, Graduate Engineer, Building Services – 15 December 2021

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Jocelyn Choy

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Ideas can take us on unexpected journeys. In my case, what started as an interest in how things move led me to a project that is helping humans recover some freedom and mobility after injury. Here’s how it happened.

Firstly, I believe it is my responsibility as an engineer to provide solutions that focus on sustainability and human-centric designs. This belief is what led me here to Cundall as a graduate mechanical engineer.

At the start of my university journey, I didn’t have a specific engineering specialization identified. Through meeting a Master of Engineering student, I was encouraged by him to join his motorsports team as a junior. This helped me discover my love for mechanical engineering. I decided that just as he had mentored and supported me, I wanted to do the same for others.

I became a volunteer with Robogals, a global organization that aims to inspire and empower young women to study engineering. My role included running workshops in local Melbourne schools for girls in primary to high school. The workshops covered a variety of themes and activities including interactive mini projects to introduce different fields of engineering, demonstrate the importance of teamwork, and develop technical skills such as coding.

As I wanted to contribute more, I began to help to organize events and partnerships, ultimately resulting in me becoming the Asia Pacific Communications Manager. I was able to meet likeminded individuals from all around the world and looked after teams in Australia, Indonesia, and Japan, just to name a few. Fast forward a few years, and during my time as a lead tutor on engineering subjects at The University of Melbourne, it was incredibly rewarding to see one of my Robogals girls appear as an engineering student.

As I commenced my Master of Engineering degree, I joined Australia’s first Advanced Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (ALEX) team. Our vision was to push the boundaries and drive development of assistive technologies, and eventually compete in the 2020 CYBATHLON competition in Zurich, Switzerland.

The goal was to enable paraplegics to gain independence and overcome everyday obstacles such as navigating stairs or uneven ground. My Research & Development team focused predominantly on two things:

1) designing a user-interface for the pilot to control the exoskeleton, and

2) designing trajectories for various actions. This involved determining an efficient movement route for each task, and then programming it into the exoskeleton to control its movement.

Each task came with its own unique set of challenges.

In designing the user interface, my team focused heavily on the pilot’s preferences, structural integrity, practical constraints, and the ergonomics of the design.

When designing trajectories, parameters such as stride length were heavily dependent on the pilot’s physical factors such as height, weight, and extent of mobility. As such, it was crucial to develop a robust code which could accommodate simple adjustments to tailor the movements to suit the exoskeleton’s pilot. Additionally, the trajectories we developed had to accommodate someone with no mobility from the waist down so they could maintain balance when doing tasks such as walking or going up the stairs while minimising their exertion.

In the months leading up to the CYBATHLON, the pandemic curtailed many of our planned pilot training sessions. However, this did not stop us from improving our trajectories - we developed a virtual world and used simulations to test our design. Through this, we were able to ensure that all the exoskeleton’s motors weren’t exceeding their limits and that our virtual pilot was able to remain steady. This was key to our success in completing working trajectories for the entire competition course whilst ensuring the safety of our pilot.

In a powerful moment of serendipity, both ALEX and Robogals came together in 2019 when the team presented at an Engineers Australia event promoting the possibilities of engineering to the next generation of female engineers.

Our possibilities are limitless – if we are willing to learn, collaborate, imagine, invent, and test ideas. This is the essence of engineering. As I continue to grow as a mechanical engineer I intend to continue positive contributions to society and be an advocate for diversity in our profession.

Curious what the exoskeleton looks like in action? Check out a short snippet of myself testing the system in 2019: Jocelyn Choy on LinkedIn

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