08 May 2015
Bionic Exoskeleton Could Help Spinal-Cord-Injured Patients to Walk Again
Researchers in the United States have developed an “ankle exoskeleton” that attaches to the foot and requires no electrical power source.
The carbon-fibre exoskeleton, which is connected to the leg by a frame with a lever around the ankle joint, reduces the energy needed to move around by 7%, making those wearing the device feel as if they have just shed a 10lb rucksack.
The researchers spent eight years carefully analysing the biomechanics of human walking. Studies of ultrasound imaging showed exactly how the ankle, knee and hip joints work together to share the stress of walking, revealing that the calf muscle expends energy simply holding the Achilles tendon taut as well as when propelling the body forward.
In consequence, the researchers designed an extremely simple, lightweight device that works in parallel to the calf muscle, mimicking extra muscles and tendons to reduce the metabolic energy used with each step.
The device, which weighs around the same as a normal shoe, uses an unpowered clutch to engage a spring that runs parallel to the Achilles tendon – the tendon in our heels that helps our ankles ‘bounce’.
When the foot is on the ground, the spring pulls taut, taking some of the load off the calf muscle, and disengaging again when the foot is in the air. This means the calf muscle doesn’t need to work so hard and the ankle doesn’t need to flex so far when walking, saving energy and reducing wear on the joint.
The long-term aim of the project is to use lightweight, energy-efficient exoskeletons to assist people who have mobility issues for example people who have suffered a stroke or sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury and are no longer able to walk unaided.
This simple and clever device is very exciting news for the field of biomechanics and assistive devices and could eventually help mechanical engineers and roboticists design a future prosthetic device to help those with a disability walk again.
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