April 10, 2017 / Lisa Pietrzyk

German - New Zealand Partnership: “Soft Tissue Robotics”

Bringing together robotics and simulation technologies

“The land of the long white cloud”, “Aotearoa” in the Māori language, has been maintaining scientific relations with Germany for forty years. Right at the forefront: the University of Stuttgart in cooperation with the University of Auckland. This research alliance now received a further financial boost. Since March, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has been funding a bilateral graduate school for interdisciplinary bioengineering named “Soft Tissue Robotics”. 

New Zealand's Ambassador welcomed to Stuttgart
The Stuttgart Science Circle, during which Auckland and Stuttgart presented an outline of their visions and goals in the University Library Stuttgart at the end of March, was met with considerable interest. In this worthy setting, University Rector Wolfram Ressel welcomed not only representatives of the Ministry of Science, but also S.E. Rodney Harris, New Zealand’s Ambassador to Germany, as well as professor Leo Cheng from New Zealand and professor Oliver Röhrle, the two main protagonists of the evening.

Intensive interaction for over ten years
Röhrle, who is a professor for “Continuum Biomechanics and Mechanobiology” at the Cluster of Excellence for Simulation Technology (SimTech), spent more than four years in New Zealand between 2004 and 2008 and has been actively engaged in promoting lasting research collaborations between the two countries ever since. He has known Leo Cheng, his research partner at the other end of the globe, for just as long. Together, they provided insights into their research on the human body using methods that are commonplace in the engineering professions, but are just starting to be used in their research area. A crucial role in this respect is played by simulation technologies. Their primary focus is on digital human models. 

The human body is electric
Cheng and Röhrle demonstrated that engineering methods are ideally suited to help us understand complex relationships in human medicine. Both scientists employ similar methods to model human musculature, but are working on different areas. Whereas Cheng focuses on the electrical activity in the gastrointestinal tract, Röhrle and his team are likewise concerned with the biomechanical effects of these electrical impulses, the muscle contractions.

Röhrle explained that human skeletal muscles are stimulated by electrical impulses transmitted by nerves. This signal is transmitted along the fibers and leads to a contraction of the muscle. To be able to better understand the control mechanisms of skeletal muscles, the scientists create virtual models with the aid of simulation models that depict the resulting electric fields in the muscle. 

Detailed understanding of the development of diseases
The New Zealander Cheng is conducting an intricate investigation into the human digestive system. He wants to understand how electrical impulses are triggered and how they spread throughout the gastrointestinal tract. In addition, Cheng, who holds a the doctorate in engineering, wants to gain detailed knowledge of what exactly happens when diseases occur, to be able to develop a technology that can provide an effective diagnosis of these anomalies which might lead to curing the disease at an early stage or to prevent it altogether. 

Bringing together robotics and simulation technologies
Since March, Cheng and Röhrle, the spokesmen of the two research institutes (as well as P. Xu, their colleague in New Zealand and Professor Alexander Verl, their German colleague) can enjoy a fresh infusion of funds by the German Research Foundation on the topic of “Soft Tissue Robotics”. The aim of the new graduate school’s research is to investigate novel methods for developing control and automation strategies that enable robots to interact with soft tissue. “We will try to create an interdisciplinary environment, for example by holding lectures, for an ideal consolidation of robotics and simulation strategies”, Röhrle says.

As part of the SimTech Colloquium, Cheng will hold a lecture titled “An integrated experimental and mathematical approach to study gastrointestinal electrophysiology” on May 24, 2017.

Further information on the lecture


Oliver  Röhrle
Prof. PhD

Oliver Röhrle

Principal Investigator (EXC), Fellow (SC), Coordinator PN 2

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