Exciting Exoskeleton Advances for People With Mobility Issues

The adoption of ground-breaking technology has led to rapid improvements in engineering and health solutions. One notable improvement is in the development of various types of exoskeletons for restoring function and mobility of people with neurological conditions such as spinal cord injuries and stroke.

Key takeaways:
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    Smaller and lighter exoskeletons will contribute to efficient motion and improved stability.
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    Exoskeletons driven by artificial intelligence will result in a better quality of movement and allow the user to perform as many movements as possible.
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    Exoskeletons with energy harvesting abilities will enable the user to mobilize wherever they wish to for as long as they want to.

Despite the advances in this area, there is always room for improvement. In consideration of this, various teams around the world are working on developing exoskeletons that are smaller, lighter, make use of artificial intelligence, and are self-powering.

Mobility limitations can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating for people with certain neurological conditions. The use of exoskeletons allows for increased movement and independence. Read on to learn of the latest advances in exoskeleton technology.

From hard to soft robotic exoskeletons

The current generation of exoskeletons is primarily made of hardware material and rigid structures. While the hard exoskeleton is applicable in industrial settings and the rigid structure is necessary for maintaining its structural integrity, it also poses several challenges. For example, it makes exoskeletons huge and very heavy, thus making it challenging for patients with neurological conditions to use them effectively. In addition, the current exoskeleton has biomechanical variations from the normal human anatomy. This often results in ergonomic problems (e.g., bad posture), which may put a patient at a higher risk of developing medical problems associated with limb paralysis (e.g., low back pain).

The Harvard Biodesign lab, together with its international collaborators, has sought to address these limitations by designing a new generation of soft robotic exoskeletons. This new generation exoskeleton is comprised of an electrically controlled joint attached to a soft support cuff fixed to the limb by nylon straps. It also comes with an integrated system of digital sensors and high-resolution cameras that track the path, efficiency, and speed of limb movement. This system enables clinicians to collect data that can monitor the patient's progress during physical rehabilitation.

Additional benefits of soft-robotic exoskeletons include:

  • Lightweight.
  • Smaller size.
  • Efficient motion transfer.
  • Effective mechanical support.
  • Improved stability during functional tasks.

The soft robotic exoskeleton is currently undergoing rigorous testing and redevelopment, and it is expected to be ready for use in a rehabilitation setting in 2023.

Energy-harvesting exoskeletons

Current active exoskeleton models are powered by electricity or a battery. Although electricity-powered exoskeletons have a long operational time, their main limitation is that they are usable only within a confined space because they are connected via cables to a power source. Battery-powered exoskeletons provide users with the freedom to mobilize wherever they wish to, but they have relatively short battery life.

Yunde Shi and colleagues from Southeast University in China are addressing these limitations by designing a lightweight, soft robotic exoskeleton with energy-harvesting abilities. The device is comprised of a waist bracket (which mounts the energy converter, batteries, and controller), a lower limb exoskeleton, and transmission cables connecting the two parts. The exoskeleton harvests power by converting the kinetic energy generated by the motion of its joints into electrical energy that continually powers it for as long as the user is in motion. This allows the user to mobilize wherever they want for a longer period. Preliminary results show that using this exoskeleton generates 3.2 Watts of electric power and reduces thigh muscle activation by approximately 10%. Altogether, these improve efficiency and contribute to long-term sustainability.

Artificial intelligence exoskeleton

Another area developers are currently focused on is improving the quality and increasing the number of movements the user can naturally perform with the assistance of an exoskeleton. The current models of battery-powered exoskeletons consist of a remote-control watch where the user selects the type of movement they would like to perform (from a list of pre-programmed movements), and the suit then does the movement for them. For instance, by selecting a standing option, the suit will automatically help the user to stand. This model is limited because the user cannot perform movements that are not pre-programmed into the device.

The team at AiBle is working on addressing these limitations by using artificial intelligence systems to control exoskeletons. The project introduces multiple novel sensors that detect movement intention and sends data to a cloud-based platform to improve the training of intelligent algorithms. Following successful training, the exoskeleton will perform movements that the user intends on doing. In addition, the exoskeleton will gauge the degree of movement assistance the user requires at different stages of physical rehabilitation. This feature will facilitate graded and progressive rehabilitation until the patient has achieved a higher level of functioning.

Innovative exoskeletons are solving many of the pressing challenges that commonly confront people with disabilities. The days when a paralyzed person would be condemned to a lifetime of disability are slowly becoming a thing of the past, and this is exciting. The ongoing improvements are expected to further improve patients’ functioning, mobility, and quality of life.

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