Carnegie Mellon University
Skip navigation and jump directly to page content

Sept. 28: Carnegie Mellon Biomedical Engineering Students Win Award For Designing Device To Help People With Autism


Chriss Swaney                     

Carnegie Mellon Biomedical Engineering Students Win
Award For Designing Device To Help People With Autism

PITTSBURGH — A team of biomedical engineering students from Carnegie Mellon University recently won first place in a national Student Design Competition for its redesign of a "Hug Machine" to calm people with autism. The competition was sponsored by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for the Advancement of Cognitive Technologies (RERC-ACT) and the Colorado-based Coleman Institute.

Hug Machine Team leader Jenna L. Colbaugh, who now works in package design and development for the Procter & Gamble Company, said the Hug Machine is designed to help people with autism cope with anxiety and other stress-related conditions by safely applying soothing lateral body pressure which the user controls. The team's goal was to redesign a very costly commercially available device into an affordable system that could be easily built by parents, schools and clinics with autistic children or adults.

With the supervision of biomedical engineering professors James Antaki and Mark B. Friedman, Colbaugh's team, which included Biomedical Engineering Department seniors Daron Colflesh, Sabrina Dhanani, Stephen Lin and Neil Stegall, designed and tested a prototype that can literally squeeze tension right out of a stressed-out patient.

"We combined a twin bed air mattress with a built-in remote control fan inflator and an adjustable and collapsible plywood frame to support it. The user can make the sides move gently in a lateral direction, creating a safe hugging motion for the patient inside the sandwich-shaped prototype," said Colbaugh, who graduated last May from the College of Engineering.  

Colbaugh said her team worked nonstop over spring break and right up to graduation to make the prototype perfect.  The students tested the Hug Machine on 40 peers and friends across campus.

Contest entries were judged on how potentially valuable the technology might be for cognitively impaired users and how many of them might benefit from the technology. By designing their system with simple hand tools and readily available parts, rather than complex or exotic materials, the students and contest judges believe the system may benefit people who can't afford access to the existing commercial system, whose size, cost and complexity severely limit the number of potential users.

"This award is really a testament to the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of our students and the promise of this creative biomedical engineering design class," said Antaki, who is now developing a revolutionary new infant heart-assist pump to help infant cardiac patients.