- Title: Plug-and-play exoskeleton boosts autonomy for wheelchair users
- Date: 13th March 2017
- Summary: VARIOUS OF TEST PATIENT STANDING IN EXOSKELETON AND WALKING
- Embargoed: 27th March 2017 18:55
- Keywords: Italian Institute of Technology IIT exoskeleton wheelchair
- Location: GENOA, ITALY
- City: GENOA, ITALY
- Country: Italy
- Topics: Science
- Reuters ID: LVA00367XJDJV
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Powered exoskeleton suits are being developed at many universities and research centres around the world. Most have the ultimate aim of allowing the user to dispense with their wheelchair and rely only on the exoskeleton to get around. A team from the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) has taken a different approach; one that keeps the wheelchair but increases the independence of the user.
"We cannot at present substitute the wheelchair - the function it has - for a person with spinal injuries. They currently use it in a very efficient way and technology doesn't allow, so far, to substitute such a device," said Lorenzo De Michieli, coordinator of Rehab Technologies IIT-INAIL Lab. "But we can allow them to, for example, use another kind of device, the exoskeleton, to make other things different from what they usually do with the wheelchair."
Metal exoskeleton suits worn outside the body, delivering energy for limb movement, are becoming more widespread, helping survivors of strokes, spinal cord injuries, and other lower extremity weaknesses to walk again.
But the team from IIT says currently available exoskeletons still do not respond to the actual needs of this population. They are often heavy and bulky, so the user is still reliant on other people to help them put on and take off the exoskeleton.
Technical director Matteo Laffranchi said the IIT-designed exoskeleton can be clipped apart for easy transportation.
"Our idea is not to replace the wheelchair because paraplegics can do everything with the wheelchair. But our idea is to introduce a new concept which can make possible a combined use of an exoskeleton with the wheelchair," Laffranchi told Reuters.
"The main difference compared to other exoskeletons is that by having a fully modular system it can very much improve the autonomy of the patient. So you can actually use it and take it around," he said, adding that the 'plug-and-play' suit is small enough when disassembled to be carried in a bag.
Two electric motors on each leg allow the movements of flexion-extension of the knee and hip joints. The battery, which lasts about three hours on a single charge, is attached to the user's lower back.
Once strapped into the exoskeleton, patients walk with the aid of crutches. However, the team is trialling an app-based controller that tells the exoskeleton to, for example, stand up or sit down at the touch of a button. While still a prototype, the final exoskeleton will also be comparatively affordable, according to the developers.
They say it bridges the gap between confinement to a wheelchair and regaining a sense of independence. Being able to easily strap the suit on in the home, for example, would let the wearer stand up to reach items and help them to use the toilet unaided.
"Autonomy is basically the first priority for these kind of patients. They want to be autonomous. We have interviewed some patients that have used some other types of exoskeletons and they couldn't use them autonomously. Even though they were really very enthusiastic about the use of the exoskeleton, in the end for them it was really uncomfortable to ask people to help them in sitting down and taking them around. So they want to be fully autonomous. By having a fully modular system it's much easier to transport and to take it around, so in the end we try to tackle this issue," added Laffranchi.
The prototype exoskeleton has been tested at the INAIL Prosthesis Centre in Bologna and Valduce Hospital near Lake Como. Further clinical trials are planned for 2017 to investigate the exoskeleton's functionalities and further revise it.
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