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Humans use the agonist-antagonist structure of their muscles to simultaneously determine both the motion and the stiffness of their joints. Designing this feature into an artificial limb may prove advantageous. To evaluate the performance of an artificial limb capable of modulating its impedance, we have created a compact series elastic actuator that has the same size and similar weight as commercially available electric prosthetic elbows. The inherent compliance in series elastic actuators ensure their safety to the user, even at high speeds, while creating a high-fidelity force actuator ideally suited for impedance control. This paper describes three serial studies that build on each other. The first study presents modeling of the actuator to ensure stability in the range of impedance modulation and empirically tests the actuator to validate its ability to modulate impedance. The actuator is found to be stable and accurate over a wide range of impedances. In the second study, four subjects are tested in a preliminary experiment to answer basic questions necessary to implement user-modulated impedance control. Findings include the superiority of velocity control over position control as the underlying motion paradigm and the preference for high stiffness and non-negative inertia. Based on the findings of the second study, the third study evaluates the performance of 15 able-bodied subjects for two tasks, using five different impedance paradigms. Impedance modulation, speed, and error were compared across paradigms. The results indicate that subjects do not actively modulate impedance if it is near a preferred baseline. Fixed impedance and viscosity modulation provide the most accurate control.
Date of Publication: March 2008