May 182017

The personalized exoskeleton first detects the particularities of Bertelli’s walk: the patterns of his stride known as the gait. Once this pattern is established, the system’s algorithm is able to detect deviations from his normal gait i.e. the onset of a fall. When this happens, the motors push both of the thighs down, reestablishing Bertelli’s stability at the hip.

A powered exoskeleton prevents the elderly from falling

Wearable machines that enhance your movement and endurance no longer belong to the realm of science fiction. They are being developed today in the laboratory, and in this controlled setting, already prevent the elderly from falling.

Scientists at Scuola Sant’Anna in Italy and EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) in Switzerland have built a prototype of a smart, light-weight and easy-to-personalize exoskeleton that counteracts the loss of balance and promotes balance recovery after an accidental slip. This is a first in wearable machines, which are normally used to assist or enhance regular movement, instead of preventing an unexpected event like falling. The results are published on May 11th in Scientific Reports.

The exoskeleton was designed to help the elderly by preventing fall-related injuries, since seniors are involved in 40% of fatal injuries related to falling in Europe. But the exoskeleton could also be used as an aid for the physically impaired, amputees and those suffering from neurological disorders. It’s technology that will actually help people with their daily activities.

The exoskeleton is wearable from the waist down, and is vastly different from the armored stuff you see in today’s science fiction movies.

“Our smart exoskeleton is light-weight and extremely easy to personalize,” says Silvestro Micera, professor at EPFL and Scuola Sant’Anna and holds the Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Translational Neuroengineering. For this first prototype, the exoskeleton requires only a few minutes to adapt to a given patient, which involves adjusting the size for a particular user and learning the user’s gait.

How the exoskeleton works

At Hospital Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi in Florence, 69 year old Fulvio Bertelli puts on the wearable machine, a device equipped with motors at the hip, and braces made out of carbon fiber. The scientists adjust a few nuts and bolts, and Bertelli is ready to test his new gear. It is not yet the attire that can be discretely worn outside of the laboratory. But it works.

“I feel more confident when I wear the exoskeleton,” says Bertelli after having worn the machine on a special treadmill that can artificially make him lose his balance and slip.

Learn more: A powered exoskeleton prevents the elderly from falling



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