An Iowa Lab Aimed at Making Humans Better

Apr 15, 2016

An unassuming laboratory in a basement corner room of the Black Engineering Building at Iowa State has a lofty goal: to make humans better at what they do. Researchers at the ATHENA Lab are working to improve human performance.

Thomas Schnieders shoots target practice with a laser gun to test a device to improve marksmanship.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

It may not look like what you imagine a testing laboratory to be. It’s stuffed with, well, stuff. An old foosball game, a headless mannequin stretched across a table, a grocery cart filled with canned goods. It’s officially named the Augmentation and Training of Humans with Engineering in North America. We’ll call it the ATHENA Lab, one of only four of its kind in the world. The laboratory’s director and co-founder Richard Stone gives a scientific definition for what it means to augment humans.

“Augmenting human capability is increasing human capability doing their job," he explains. "whether that is through biomechanical, biomedical or cognitive means.”

In other words, he’s testing to see how people can work and play more efficiently.

“Whether that is through the tools they use, the techniques we develop for them, or the environment in which they conduct work,” he says.

For example, researchers are developing methods to improve the marksmanship of law enforcement officers. The lab’s other co-founder, graduate student Thomas Schnieders, is pointing a laser gun at a small target.

“And just go ahead and aim down the sights, and squeeze that trigger,” he demonstrates.

Strapped to his forearm and overlapping his fingers, wrist and hand is something he describes as an exoskeleton.

From left to right, ATHENA Lab Director Richard Stone, lab assistant Erik Danford-Klein, and co-founder Thomas Schnieders make adjustments on an exoskeleton designed to improve accuracy with firearms.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“This is just providing a little bit of tension just to remind me what angle my wrist needs to be at," Schnieders says. "And I’m locking out this movement here so my hand itself does not really deviate.”

Schnieders seems satisfied with the results of his target practice.

“I know all of them hit, all in the nine ring just outside the bulls eye,” he points out.

Schnieders has wanted to explore how to get the best out of humans for almost as long as he can remember. He says he was inspired by superheroes.

“I had gotten interested first in comic books, Iron Man, Tony Stark, back when I was 13- 14-years old,” he recalls.

Now he’s part of a team of undergraduate and graduate students who are applying the techniques of engineering to the operation of the human body. At least six research projects are ongoing. Master’s student Leela Rajana is concentrating work on the mannequin. She’s developing an artificial skin to place on it, so she can test suturing methods for surgeons.

“You know, if it helps a doctor get better or learn faster, I’d be really happy,” she says.

The artificial skin will be applied to the life-size manikin so ATHENA Lab researchers can test suturing techniques for surgeons.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

The ATHENA Lab has also run experiments to help improve techniques for welders. But Richard Stone says not everything it does is aimed at on-the-job enhancements. The cart of groceries, for example, is to test ways to speed up the self-checkout line at warehouse stores.

“It’s not just the professional, it’s not just a person or persons doing a specific job," he says. "But it’s the common day-to-day interaction with the world.”

Stone says the researchers in the ATHENA Lab are looking for solutions that actually make a difference in the lives of people.

“I don’t want to wax too poetic here, it’s not 'we’re changing the world' you know, things along those lines," he says. "But, what can we do to in some way make things appreciably improve?”

It’s a noble ambition for an unpretentious laboratory.