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Meet the hippotherapy robot horse named Stewie

Students at Rice University create a special robot to help patients get equine-based therapy without needing a real horse.

Saddle up on this robot horse and you could help improve your coordination, balance and strength. 

Nicknamed Stewie, the robot was designed and built by senior mechanical engineering students Kelsi Wicker, Sebastian Jia, Matthew O'Gorman, James Phillips, Wesley Yee and Jijie Zhou attending Rice University, located in Houston, Texas.

Stewie was created specifically to aid people undergoing hippotherapy -- the use of horseback riding as a rehabilitative treatment for patients seeking to improve their movement and balance capabilities. Hippotherapy is also used to help kids with speech problems.

The engineering students say Stewie is more controllable and comfortable for riders who don't have access to real horses. Stewie can accommodate a 250-pound (113 kg) rider, and can theoretically hold up to 500 pounds (227 kg) of weight.

Stewie is based on a robotic concept invented back in the 1950s called the Stewart platform, which uses six computer-controlled motors attached to metal legs to allow for six degrees of movement: latitude, longitude, vertical, pitch, roll and yaw (twisting on a vertical axis).

"It's similar to what you would see on flight simulators at NASA," Yee said in a statement from Rice University released Thursday.

In a video posted Wednesday, Stewie's creators explain the basics of how they built and tested the gadget. 

The students fine-tuned the robot horse's movements by using a phone app to collect data and then incorporating that into their code. Patients and therapists can determine the kind and length of a ride. 

"We can enter any position and orientation at any time, and this allows us to re-create any horse gait," O'Gorman says in the video. "Hippotherapists will choose the horse based on the needs of the patient, and different horses will offer different gaits. We're able to reproduce many different gaits with our system because it relies on electrical controls rather than mechanical controls."

Stewie's design schematics and codes are open-source and will be available free online to those who want to build and improve on the original robot horse.

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