By Matthew Hutson
The words “robotic exoskeleton” probably bring to mind futuristic soldiers and sci-fi flicks like Aliens, Iron Man, or The Wrong Trousers. But despite military efforts to create such technology, it might show up somewhere less glamorous first: nursing homes. Researchers in Italy and Switzerland have developed a prototype device that can detect a slip in progress and help its wearer avoid falling. If perfected, a system like this could one day help millions of elderly people and amputees maintain balance and avoid serious tumbles.
As people age, they naturally become weaker and less agile. Add disease or injury, and falling becomes a worry with every step. And it can be more than an inconvenience—falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries among the elderly. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, some researchers are trying to take preventive action with powered exoskeletons—braces for the legs with motorized joints that assist while walking. But the braces are usually bulky and slow, and most people don’t need their assistance with every step. So the researchers set out to solve that problem with a device that would take action only when needed.
“It’s the first time that someone has rationally dealt with falls by having the robot collaborate with the person,” says David Reinkensmeyer, a biomechanical engineer at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research. “It’s supercool.”
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