Chances are, you’ve seen a person using a powered exoskeleton – what you might think of as a sort of bionic suit – but only in the movies. In the 2013 movie “Elysium,” for example, Matt Damon’s character has an exoskeleton that makes his body stronger and faster than it would otherwise be. Simply described, they are devices that can be externally worn, resembling the skeleton of the body part they are attached to and able to provide support in many ways.
That technology isn’t just in science fiction; it really exists and has even been commercialized. It supports devices that enhance human strength, assist disabled people and even provide rehabilitation after injuries.
Stroke victims can get help relearning skills they have lost or learn new ways of performing tasks to compensate for lost abilities. The most effective rehabilitation is specific to the skills the patient needs, and of sufficient intensity and duration to truly retrain the nerves and muscles involved. However, the number of trained human therapists who can provide this support is limited, while the demand is growing, particularly as populations age.
Laboratory for Control, Robotics and Automation (LCRA) at Texas A&M University is working to help solve this problem by developing an intelligent robotic device that can provide therapy services in hospitals and clinics as an enhancement to conventional therapy methods. Their device will be connected to a patient’s upper arm and back during therapy sessions, providing individualized movement assistance to increase strength and flexibility. Such a device benefits therapists by reducing the physical load of their jobs, and patients by providing affordable and widely available therapy opportunities.
Robots for rehabilitation
While there remain a number of things that only human therapists can do, many rehab exercises are highly repetitive. This is where robotic systems excel: They can perform the same task countless times, with precision and accuracy without fatigue or loss of attention.
Many researchers around the world have developed robotic devices for rehabilitation purposes. These devices are typically designed specifically to work on patients’ paralyzed arms or legs. Many clinical studies confirm the effectiveness of automated therapy; in some cases, it is even better than conventional therapy. However, there is still a long way to go.