A project to make exoskeleton suits more comfortable and allow paralysed patients to change direction and navigate stairs is making progress. Jim Drury reports.
Powered exoskeleton suits can improve the lives of the severely disabled and paralysed. Worn outside the body, they deliver external energy to aid limb movement, helping survivors of strokes and spinal cord injuries walk. But they aren't perfect. A patient's joints can be misaligned with those of the exoskeleton, while the suits' bulk can make climbing stairs or turning impossible. Researchers at ETH Zurich want to improve the next generation of suits. SOUNDBITE (English) SENSORY-MOTOR SYSTEMS RESEARCHER AT ETH ZURICH, VOLKER BARTENBACH, SAYING: "Hopefully we will build systems that allow you to do more tasks. Besides walking in a straight line, you might be able to walk sideways in front of your kitchen counter or something like that, to walk stairs up and down. Also to turn round on the spot." The team's own prototype shows promise. SOUNDBITE (English) SENSORY-MOTOR SYSTEMS RESEARCHER AT ETH ZURICH, VOLKER BARTENBACH, SAYING: "We have here the hip joint, so if I move my leg like this the exoskeleton provides this degree of freedom. The same, different degree of freedom is, for example, the adduction abduction, so if I spread my leg to the side and this is also provided here by the exoskeleton, by the joint, so if I'm inside I can still perform this movement." The suit's four bar joint linkage mechanism is designed to help a patient's hip rotate round its axis, allowing the wearer to turn. By replicating the natural kinematics of lower limbs, researchers think they can radically improve exoskeleton technology. They also want to create a soft exosuit in which force is transmitted through textiles, without the need for rigid structures like this. If developed on a commercial scale, the team says that such a suit could reduce the costs of healthcare, while intensifying patient recovery times.