New Brunswick

From robotic eels to artificial pancreas: Engineer does 'modern type of magic'

A Norwegian engineer behind research as diverse as bionic limbs, robotic eels and an artificial pancreas as a potential cure for diabetes is lecturing at the University of New Brunswick this week.

Oyvind Stavdahl will deliver this year's Dineen Memorial Lecture at University of New Brunswick campuses

Engineering and mathematics might not be to everyone's tastes, says a Norwegian engineer behind such projects as bionic limbs, robotic submarines, and an artificial pancreas for people with diabetes.

But don't call his specialty boring.

"It's never been more relevant than today," Oyvind Stavdahl said Wednesday in an interview with Information Morning Saint John.

"I view it as the modern type of magic."

Manipulates reality

A photoshopped image shows what an artificial pancreas might look like, with a single port through the skin into the peritoneal cavity, through which a sensor wire and a tube can be inserted for insulin infusion. (Geir Mogen)
Stavdahl is in the province to deliver this year's Dineen Memorial Lecture at the University of New Brunswick's Fredericton and Saint John campuses.

Engineering feats are changing the way we live, he said.

"Humans have always tried to do things that are … seemingly impossible," said Stavdahl, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "And the whole idea about research is understanding more about reality, and can we use that to our advantage.

"People lived more dangerously before than they do now, because now we know how to manipulate nature and our surroundings. We make houses with insulation, so we don't freeze to death in the winter. And engineering, mathematics,  is at the core of this."

In a lecture titled "Diving Deeper, from Diabetes Treatments to Subsea Interventions," Stavdahl will discuss his diverse research pursuits, including the pancreas device, which is in its early stages of development.

Oyvind Stavdahl, a Norwegian engineer and professor, will discuss his wide-ranging research pursuits in Fredericton and Saint John this week. (Artificial Pancreas Trondheim)
Today's systems measure and control glucose levels for people with Type 1 diabetes, through a sensor inserted under the skin that measures glucose levels in tissue fluid.

"But the sugar level in the blood isn't reflected quickly in the skin, it takes time from when you eat until the sensor realizes there is food there … and also it takes a lot of time from when insulin is injected until it starts working," Stavdahl said.

"That means blood sugar is allowed to raise to dangerous values before the insulin starts working."

The new device being developed through Stavdahl's university will detect blood sugar levels instantly and more accurately, Stavdahl said, by inserting a sensor and insulin infusion inside the body, in the peritoneal cavity.

"That's the space inside you that contains your intestines, that's what's special about the solution we're working on," he said.

The pancreas device requires the development of suitable sensors, which will detect the glucose levels in the peritoneal cavity almost instantaneously. (Anders Fougner)

Another project, the robotic eel, repairs oil wells deep under the ocean.

"It's basically a robotic arm that can also swim," said Stavdahl.

"It's long, slender … in that way we can reach areas in these installations that are out of reach of the traditional submarines because they're too big."

'Anything possible'

Stavdahl said the common denominator between the two projects is controlled engineering, which "manipulates reality" to work in our favour.

"If you put the robotic eel into the water, it will sink or it will float, but we want it to stay at the right depth, we want it to move in a certain path, to move a certain way … that involves a lot of mathematics and a dynamic model of the robot.

"It was very difficult to put the first man on the moon, but it was done. So anything of that order of difficulty or less is obviously possible."

Stavdahl will be speaking at UNB Fredericton on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Dineen Auditorium at Head Hall, and at UNB Saint John on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Ganong Lecture Theatre.

Both events are open to the public. There is no admission fee.

The Dineen lectures focus on technology and its impact on society. 

The lecture series began in 1980 to honour former engineering professor and UNB president James O. Dineen.

With files from Information Morning Saint John