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BW Businessworld

Robotics: A Step Up

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Amanda Boxtel, a wheelchair user for 19 years, is about to stand up. A skiing accident in Aspen, Colorado, left her paralysed from the waist down  four vertebrae shattered and a bruised spinal cord. She slowly pushes herself out of the chair with crutches, teeters backward for a second, then leans forward again and takes a step.


Throughout my paralysed life, I have figured out how to adapt to a world of sitting, and to play hard from a recumbent position. Now, I have the power to enable me to stand, step out and walk, says Boxtel, who has been through years of physical therapy and experimental treatments in the hope of one day being able to stand up again.


The robotic prosthetic legs are worn over ordinary clothing and simple velcro straps (made of nylon fabric), backpack-style clips, and shoulder straps secure you in. The legs are driven by four motors, one for each hip and knee. The ankle joint is controlled with passive springs that keep the foot angled so that it can be placed on the ground, heel to toe, as the leg steps. Sensors in the legs then relay position information to the control unit, which determines how to bend the joints and, in turn, walk.


While the device can support a wearer weight, balance is left to the person, via crutches, which also serve to control the system. To take a step, the wearer pushes down with the crutch opposite to the intended stepping leg. Similar gestures, such as pushing down on both crutches simultaneously, allow the wearer to transition from sitting to standing, or to make turns. It is the first such device in the world to do so without a tether.


For now, the device is only available at a few rehabilitation centres in the United States, where it is being tested under the supervision of trained physical therapists, as part of a clinical trial.


But if things go well, eLEGS could be available commercially by 2013. We are anxious to field the technology starting with premiere rehab facilities in the coming months. Ultimately, we foresee the day when people will begin using eLEGS beyond the in-patient setting and start using it day-to-day in the real world, says Fogelin.