Bionic exoskeleton could help people walk again

Researchers at University of Pittsburgh are combining this robotic technology of an exoskeleton with sensory technology to make paralyzed muscles work with the use of ultrasound. The team recently created a prototype hybrid exoskeleton.

Photo
Nitin Sharma, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, tries on the prototype exoskeleton.
Source: Courtesy of Sharma Lab

The hybrid aspect comes from the two types of technology being used in this project, with electrodes sending ultrasound noninvasively to make paralyzed muscles work while the battery-powered bionic exoskeleton provides additional support to promote movement. “We’re trying to create a situation where the patient controls the exoskeleton, not the other way around,” said Nitin Sharma, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and the team’s principal investigator.

Current rehabilitative technologies predict remaining muscle function and how much assistance is needed for muscle movement, a process called electromyography. Correctly measuring how much assistance any rehabilitative device should provide is a challenge with this method, as it is limited to large muscle groups.

However, Sharma’s research uses ultrasound, rather than electricity, delivered through sensors placed on the body. This aims to more accurately measure how much movement a target muscle group can generate. Ultrasound stimulates the tissue beneath the skin’s surface using high-frequency sound waves that cannot be heard by humans. While the ultimate goal is to coordinate muscle movement for the entire leg, Sharma’s team is focusing on the ankle for now because it is “much more complicated” than other parts of the leg, Sharma said. “Unlike the knee joint which moves in one direction, the ankle can be flexed in multiple directions and different muscles activate that joint,” Sharma said. “With electromyography, it’s very challengi

Sensory technology

The prototype exoskeleton is being developed at Pitt’s Neuromuscular Control and Robotics Laboratory, also known as the Sharma Lab, and is wired to a power source. The final product will be able to function with a portable battery. In addition, the team is working on designs that will integrate these exoskeletons with wheelchairs other mobility technologies.

Sharma said the team will next find out whether the exoskeleton affects neurological behavior and muscle mass in the legs. The team also aims to slim down the 17 kilogram (37.5 pounds) prototype to make the exoskeleton more user friendly. “We added knee motors to the design, making it heavier. But we will be replacing many of our parts with aluminum and carbon fiber parts in the near future, so we are targeting a weight of under 12 kilograms (about 26.5 pounds) with the upgrades,” said Albert Dodson, a research associate in the Sharma Lab. “Exoskeletons are heavy, so what we’re proposing is that since people will be using their muscles, you don’t need these big exoskeletons,” Sharma said. “And if you use both your own muscles and these exoskeletons, you could also save power and walk for longer periods of time.”

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