An Indian health-tech start-up has developed an exoskeleton used as a robotic arm or leg for paraplegic patients combining robotics with artificial intelligence (AI). GenElek Technologies, the start-up was chosen to represent India at the Powered Exoskeleton Race, Cybathlon 2020 in Zurich before the coronavirus outbreak.
Exoskeletons, externally worn robotic support systems, make it possible for people with neurological conditions like paralysis, stroke, and spinal cord injury to work or move better. Models like GenElek’s can tailor the customized design as per individuals’ needs. Such models can help paraplegics to walk again to learning to drive a car.
How does it Work?
The idea behind this concept is that the coupling between the brain and the machine should work in a way where the brain thinks of the machine as an extension of the body. For example, if suppose a driving car, do you think about your moves while driving a car? The brain somehow adapts to the car as if it is a part of the body. With this basic idea in mind, it would be great to have an exoskeleton that would be adopted by the brain in the same way.
The breakthrough idea is that the human brain can comprehend electronic signals from machines and peripheral nerves. Using a soft exoskeleton for paraplegic patients can help wear like a piece of clothing which can both sense the user’s movement intentions and provide instantaneous feedback. Incorporating this with recent advances in brain-machine interfaces which allow real-time measurement of brain responses enables the seamless adaption of such exoskeletons to the needs of individual users.
As per a 2013 study by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, roughly 1 out of 50 people in the US live with some form of paralysis, nearly 5.4 million people. This figure is almost equal to the combined population of Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The number of humans who are candidates for exoskeletons is about 3,00,000 and growing by around 18,000 every year.
Such models integrate AI by collecting data in real-time, interpreting, and relaying AI to the cloud. It gets processed in real-time by a medical expert monitoring the patient’s treatment.
The active powered exoskeleton is strapped onto the paralyzed arms and legs, offering help to the individual to stand up from a wheelchair without external support. It helps the person to sit or stand without dependency and walk. With training, they can even climb stairs.
Helping Stroke Patients
Robotics has recently expanded to benefit stroke patients as well. Over 70% of people who suffer a stroke never regain their walking capabilities. Companies such as Ekso and Cyberdyne are trying to change that by embracing EksoNR, a robotic exoskeleton designed to be used in a rehabilitation setting to progress neuro-rehab patients.
EksoNR is not meant to be worn out of rehab centers. Instead, it helps to train the brain and muscles, enabling patients with stroke, spinal cord injury, or other neurological conditions to retrain their bodies to walk. The goal is to teach stroke patients to walk again, so they don’t need a device for an extended period.
This robotic technology could benefit millions of people. But, the biggest constraint for getting this technology is cost. Ideally, each robot should be customized to its wearer that is expensive.