Exoskeletons, as the name indicates, are skeletons on the outside of bodies. In health technology, exoskeletons can provide patients with the strength and balance needed to stand and even walk. But what if a patient’s problem isn’t with the bones or joints, but with the nerves or muscles? Enter wearable robotics.
Currently, most “exoskeltons” feature rigid parts, motors, and batteries. When a patient’s walking problems are in the nerves and muscles, however, this doesn’t make much sense, according to Herman van der Kooij, professor of Biomechatronics and Rehabilitation at Twente University in Netherlands and head of the Wearable Robotics research consortium.
“A heavy exoskeleton is not the obvious solution then,” said van der Kooij.
Van der Kooij aims to develop robots patients can put on like a flexible light suit with a smart control system and lightweight parts without the need for tools, like crutches.
These robot developments are live-tested in the Wearable Robotics Lab, which opened in January. The lab has started with a lightweight knee orthosis; ankle and hip modules will be developed soon.
The Wearable Robotics Lab is partially funded by the private sector and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
The wearable robots help patients regain and strengthen movement. The robot replaces or improves a damaged body function or trains people to move by themselves again.
The robots can also lighten therapeutic loads. For example, they can help people stand up and walk after strokes or paraplegia. Wearable robots can also assist people who structurally overburden their bodies.
Other uses for wearable robotics
In addition to healthcare, a wearable robot can be used in numerous applications, from communications to safety.
Wearable robots can be deployed in remote collaboration or telepresence. A wearer’s movements are remotely translated to, for example, a robot arm’s movements.
The researchers aim to use real time control on the basis of individuals’ muscle models and muscles’ nervous activity (electromyography).
To prevent falls and other mishaps, the Wearable Robotics Lab has been built to the highest safety specs, working closely with Roessingh, a specialized rehabilitation center.
The development of wearable robotics is stimulated internationally by Swiss research institute Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich. In May 2020, ETH will host the next Cybathlon, a competition in which people with relevant afflictions and supported by technology take on a series of challenges. They include the following: Brain-Computer Interface Race, Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race, Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, Powered Leg Prosthesis Race, Powered Exoskeleton Race, and Powered Wheelchair Race. The tasks will continue to be relevant to everyday life, but they will reflect advances in research as well.
Twente University and the Wearable Robotics Lab have formed a team for this competition, and they are still looking for paraplegic “test pilots” who can try the new robots. In preparation for the international event, the university will organize its own Cybathlon.