Remember the “The Bionic Woman,” or the “The Six Million Dollar Man?” Both were popular 1970s televisions shows about how science turned an ordinary woman and a disabled man, respectively, into superhumans who could do just about anything. In more modern pop culture, it’s all about “Ironman.”
Science can’t yet make us superheroes, however, it can help elderly people do more, safely. Researchers in Italy and Switzerland have developed a prototype device that can detect a slip in progress — and help its wearer avoid a fall all together. The robotics community is hailing it as a invention that could one day help millions of elderly people and amputees avoid falling and becoming injured, or even dying.
According to Science:
“The new Active Pelvis Orthosis (APO) consists of a waist brace holding motors on the hips that move lightweight carbon-fiber links connected to thigh braces. It uses an algorithm that monitors leg movement; if the legs diverge from a natural gait in a way that suggests a slip, the motors apply force to help the legs counteract the slippage.”
Unlike a brace or an exoskeleton, the prototype would kick into action only when it sensed that a person was slipping.
“It’s the first time that someone has rationally dealt with falls by having the robot collaborate with the person,” David Reinkensmeyer, a biomechanical engineer at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research, told Science. “It’s supercool.”
Developers outfitted eight elderly adults and two above-the-knee amputees (who wore prosthetic legs) with the device. After the start of a slip, the device reacted within a third of a second, correcting a person’s gait for a quarter of a second. The researchers found that the people would have fallen otherwise. What’s more, during normal walking, the APO, which weighs about 5 kilograms, had no effect on gait.
The device doesn’t require much customization. It amplifies their leg force by 20 to 30 percent.
Consumers should be able to buy the device sometimes in the next decade. Let’s hope for sooner to prevent people from falling and really getting hurt.
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