75 million. This is the number of people who need a wheelchair around the world. 75 million difficult lives, marked by constraints that are often unknown to able-bodied people. Depression, loss of confidence… What are these people suffering from? Fracture of the spine, multiple sclerosis … For years scientists have been working on biomechanical exoskeletons to allow people to walk again. An exoskeleton is basically an external anatomical feature that supports and protects an animal.
Many invertebrates, such as insects, crustaceans and molluscs, have an exoskeleton, which is also more commonly referred to as a shell. But the devices are still in their infancy. The company ABLE Human Motion presented a revolutionary prototype at the TedX conference in Barcelona in June 2020.
Robotic exoskeletons, work in progress
How does a human exoskeleton work? It is essentially made up of 3 elements:
- Motors located above the muscles to replace them
- Sensors to detect user intentions
- A central computer that acts as a surrogate brain controlling the entire system
While exoskeletons are supposed to empower users, they still require support from several physiotherapists. In addition, patients cannot perform lateral movements. Generally speaking, exoskeletons require additional equipment (such as crutches) to ensure stability. The only system that does not require additional equipment is heavy. “It almost consists of getting into a car,” quips Josep Maria Font, Director of the Biomechanical Engineering Lab (BIOMEC) at Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) and Co-founder and Scientific Director of ABLE Human Motion. He is the initiator of ABLE‘s prototype. That he got through with reverse reasoning.
An exoskeleton for everyone?
To make their prototype, the ABLE teams called on 48-year-old Luz, who had been unable to move for 30 years due to a fall of 5 meters.
First step: the biomechanical analysis of the patient.
This is the key step, exoskeletons must adapt to patient and not the other way around. Luz is equipped with crutches and sensors all over her body. She is asked to take a few steps and all her movements are recorded in a 3D modeling program. From the results, the researchers determine which type of exoskeleton would be best suited to relieve her in her movements. It is from these results that the exoskeleton prototypes are made. Each contains the same components as the classic ones (sensors, motors and central computer) but adapted to Luz’s approach and behaviour, which makes all the difference.
After significant improvements allowing in particular an increase in speed of 24%, the biomechanical engineering laboratory of Catalonia is awaiting CE certification (compliance with European laws on safety, health protection and the environment) the product is still considered to be in the clinical trial phase. Lighter, allowing greater autonomy and above all much cheaper than other products on the market, this project has benefited from the support of the European Commission (up to € 50,000)
Restorative engineering, born in the aftermath of the First World War to heal the multiple incapacitated and broken faces returning from the conflict, has certainly passed one of the most important milestones of its existence. Being able to repair a large part of the handicaps created or not by accidents of life by iimproving their health and wellbeing .