Walking when the legs no longer bear: the hope of exoskeletons

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Walking when the legs no longer carry: the hope of exoskeletons

Exoskeletons offer people with disabilities the hope of being able to walk again, as for the athlete Silke Pan with this prototype from the Swiss company Twiice.

In a workshop Parisian industrialist, technicians are assembling a kind of robot, in which a human being could slip: the Atalante exoskeleton, capable of making those whose legs no longer carry walk.

The young French company Wandercraft is one of the most promising on the market of walking exoskeletons, intended for people with paralyzed lower limbs.

It's a walking robot that wraps around your legs and walks for you, or lets you walk if you still have some residual power, says Wandercraft co-founder Jean-Louis Constanza.

The robot can be piloted by a joystick, by chest movements, or even head movements, if its pilot is quadriplegic.

For now, walking exoskeletons have found an outlet in hospital rehabilitation wards, where patients use these still cumbersome machines to rehabilitate themselves to walk, or simply regain – even briefly – their ability to walk. standing position and all its benefits for the body and mind.

A demonstration of Wandercraft's Atalante prototype

The market is small, but Wandercraft has several competitors all over the world, such as the American Ekso Bionics, the Japanese Cyberdyne or the prototypes produced by research laboratories.

In 2020 in Switzerland, the Cybathlon competition between walking exoskeletons saw the triumph of the South Korean exoskeletons from the Angel Robotics laboratory and those from the young Swiss company Twiice, judged on their ability to complete a given route as quickly as possible.

However, unlike its competitors, the Atalante balances itself, and does not require its pilot to use crutches to stabilize itself .

He is able to take very quick small steps that prevent him from falling, explains Jean-Louis Constanza, who underlines the complexity of the mathematical and physical problems that had to be solved to achieve this feat.

This ability to balance without crutches is particularly useful for patients who have high spinal cord injuries and who therefore cannot use canes, confirms Doctor Jacques Kerdraon, from the Kerpape rehabilitation center, who bought an Atalante.

In total, Wandercraft has sold more than twenty of these devices, the price of which can be estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000 euros (about 197,000 to 260,000 Canadian dollars).

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Nevertheless, the real ambition is to one day market a device that is lighter than the big Atalante machine, an exoskeleton that is manageable enough to allow the patient to put it on without help and move around at home or in the street.< /p>

A technologically ambitious objective, which Jean Michenaud, biomechanical engineer at the National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology, doubts a little.

Such a machine is very bulky, needs batteries and will have to be able to make very complicated movements, which are not cyclic, such as getting into a car or climbing stairs, believes the researcher.

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I think it's possible, but we're probably still a long way off, says Tobias Bützer, a researcher at the ETH laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland, which organizes the Cybathlon.

One ​​of the big issues is designing an exoskeleton that can fit a lot of people, not just one pilot, he says . It has to be light, fast, stable…

A prototype of the Project MARCH student team at the 2019 Cybathlon

Jacques Kerdraon, the doctor of the rehabilitation center, shows itself to be more optimistic. We are in the process of setting up a feasibility study for an exoskeleton allowing autonomy of movement in an apartment, he indicates.

There is still stages to be validated on acceptability by patients, long-term use, the population concerned…

In any case, there would be great benefits from verticalizing spinal cord injuries for a long time at home, according to him.

The next edition of the Cybathlon, in 2024, will include one event – ​​out of ten – of walking without crutches , to test the progress of all exoskeletons towards self-balancing.

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