Millions of people have lower-limb paralyses limiting their movement possibility and affecting the life of their families (in addition to limiting their possibility to find a job). The Toyota Mobility Foundation set up a 4 million $ challenge in 2017 to come up with effective devices that could overcome this disability. The goal is to find an exoskeleton that can be easily controlled by the person and enable walking through the day (not just for a few metres as a demonstration). This calls for the integration of several technologies from the mechanical aspects to electronics (sensors and actuators), smart materials and Artificial Intelligence. It should also result in solutions that are affordable.
We are not there yet but significant steps forward (if you pardon the pun) have been made. Last month a virtual event announced the winner presenting (and demonstrating) ll the finalist. You can watch the recording of the event here.
We have the technology to make walking possible for people with lower-limb paralyses but it is still cumbersome and expensive. Additionally, it is really tough for a person to wear an exoskeleton for a significant period of time.
Simon Kindleysides, see his photo in the image, have a lower-limb paralyses and ha the possibility to use an exoskeleton (100,000$ price tag) and found it painful to use for extended periods of time. Nevertheless he decided to challenge himself in walking for 4 miles a day to cover 125 miles raising funds for the NHS (£ 12,000). His exoskeleton was controlled via a watch on his wrist whose sensors (accelerators) provided signals to a software that controlled the exoskeleton movement.
In South Korea, researchers are working on the possibility of controlling the exoskeleton using brain-computer interfaces (watch the clip). Interestingly, this approach results in a device that will only work with that specific person, since the software (AI/ML based) learns to interpret that specific person’s brainwaves and will not work with a different person.
When looking at the difficult walking with an exoskeleton you need to compare it with the alternative of being forced on a chair… Clearly, there is still much work ahead to come to a seamless support but the progress has been impressive.