The introduction of breakthrough technologies has led to rapid improvements in engineering and healthcare solutions. One notable improvement is in the development of various types of exoskeletons to restore function and mobility to people with neurological conditions such as spinal cord injury and stroke.The central theses:
- Smaller and lighter exoskeletons contribute to efficient movement and improved stability.
- Exoskeletons controlled by artificial intelligence will lead to better movement quality and allow the user to perform as many movements as possible.
- Exoskeletons with energy harvesting capabilities allow the user to mobilize for as long as they want.
Despite the progress made in this field, there is always room for improvement. With this in mind, various teams around the world are working to develop exoskeletons that are smaller, lighter, use artificial intelligence and are self-powered.
Mobility limitations can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating for people with certain neurological conditions. Using exoskeletons allows for more movement and independence. Read on to learn more about the latest advances in exoskeleton technology.
From hard to soft robotic exoskeletons
The current generation of exoskeletons is mainly composed of hardware material and rigid structures. While the hard exoskeleton is applicable in industrial environments and the rigid structure is necessary to maintain its structural integrity, it also brings several challenges. For example, exoskeletons become huge and very heavy, making it difficult for patients with neurological conditions to use them effectively. In addition, the current exoskeleton has biomechanical deviations from normal human anatomy. This often leads to ergonomic problems (e.g., poor posture), which may put a patient at higher risk of developing medical problems related to limb paralysis (e.g., low back pain).
The Harvard Biodesign Lab, along with its international collaborators, has sought to address these limitations by developing a new generation soft robotic exoskeleton. This new generation exoskeleton consists of an electrically controlled joint attached to a soft support sleeve that is attached to the limb with nylon straps. It also has an integrated system of digital sensors and high-resolution cameras that track the path, efficiency and speed of limb movement. This system allows doctors to collect data that can monitor the patient's progress during physical rehabilitation.
Other advantages of soft robotic exoskeletons include:
- Smaller size
- Efficient motion transmission
- Effective mechanical support
- Improved stability during functional tasks
The soft robotic exoskeleton is currently undergoing rigorous testing and new development and is expected to be ready for use in a rehabilitation setting in 2023.
Exoskeletons for energy generation
Current active exoskeleton models are powered by electricity or a battery. Although electrically powered exoskeletons have a long operating time, their main limitation is that they can only be used in confined spaces because they are connected to a power source via cables. Battery-powered exoskeletons offer users the freedom to move wherever they want, but they have a relatively short battery life.
Yunde Shi and colleagues at Southeast University in China are addressing these limitations by developing a lightweight, soft robotic exoskeleton with energy harvesting capabilities. The device consists of a hip mount (to which the energy converter, batteries, and controller are attached), a lower-limb exoskeleton, and transmission cables connecting the two parts.The exoskeleton harvests energy by converting the kinetic energy generated by the movement of its joints into electrical energy that continuously powers it as long as the user is in motion. This allows the user to mobilize wherever they want over an extended period of time. Preliminary results show that using this exoskeleton generates 3.2 watts of electrical power and reduces thigh muscle activation by about 10 %. Overall, these increase efficiency and contribute to long-term sustainability.
Artificial intelligence exoskeleton
Another area that developers are currently focusing on is improving the quality and increasing the number of movements that the user can perform naturally with the help of an exoskeleton. Current models of battery-powered exoskeletons consist of a remote-controlled watch where the user selects the type of movement they want to perform (from a list of pre-programmed movements) , and the suit then performs the movement for them. For example, if you select a standing option, the suit will automatically help the user 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 to address these limitations through the Use of artificial intelligence systems to control exoskeletons. fix . The project introduces several novel sensors that detect movement intent and send data to a cloud-based platform to improve training of intelligent algorithms. After successful training, the exoskeleton performs movements that the user intends. In addition, the exoskeleton measures the level of movement support the user needs at different stages of physical rehabilitation. This feature facilitates graduated and progressive rehabilitation until the patient reaches a higher level of function.
Innovative exoskeletons are solving many of the pressing challenges often faced by people with disabilities. The days when a paralyzed person would be condemned to lifelong disability are slowly becoming a thing of the past, and that's exciting. Ongoing improvements are designed to further enhance patients' functionality, mobility and quality of life.