Exoskeleton Helps Children Stand Tall

Spanish researchers have created a device to help children walk for the first time.
21 July, 2017
The world's first robotic exoskeleton for children is a promising alternative for people suffering from spinal muscular atrophy.
The genetic condition robs them of their ability to stand, walk or play, and in its most severe form, the degenerative disease is fatal and children die as infants. Other cases of spinal muscular atrophy don't appear until later in the child's development and become a lifelong condition.

Now, the Spanish National Research Council has developed an aluminium and titanium exoskeleton that offers children the ability to walk and play, while preventing other health ills that arise from the lack of mobility. The units are being produced by Marsi Bionics, which says they are the only pediatric models in the world. Children can begin using them at age 3 in order to take those first steps toward a healthier life.
The company admits that the first prototypes are still heavy – they weigh 12 kilos – but they essentially work as an orthopedic brace, to support the upright child in a cocoon of rods and motorized joints that end in two boots attached to the "legs" of the machine. Once the child is secured by straps, there are two different ways to use the exoskeleton. Some children have no mobility at all, so they need to use the joystick controls to operate five motors on each leg that serve as artificial muscles. When the user drives the movements of the exoskeleton, it works in ways similar to the controls on a wheelchair.

Other children have some motor function and mobility, but it's not enough for natural movement. For these kids, the CSIC-Marsi exoskeleton boosts their limited power to help them navigate the world more freely. The units also are designed to anticipate the growing child and the evolving symptoms of disease.
Image: CISC
"The number one drawback in developing this type of pediatric exoskeleton is that the symptoms of neuromuscular illnesses, such as spinal muscular atrophy, change over time, as much in the articulations as in the body," explains Elena Garcia of the Automatics and Robotics Centre at the CSIC-Polytechnic University of Madrid. "That's why it's fundamental to have an exoskeleton capable of independently adapting to these changes. Our model includes intelligent joints which alter the brace's rigidity automatically and adapt to the symptoms of each individual child at whenever required."

Plans for the use of the exoskeleton focus on hospitals, and in therapeutic and rehabilitation facilities. Children who have never walked in their lives need to make the holistic adjustment to what their "new" bodies will be doing inside the exoskeleton. The kids and their parents also need to become comfortable with how to put it on, how to control it, and ways they'll be using it before they're ready to take it home.
Image: Humanoides
The other big reason for using the exoskeleton in a facility setting is because it has the power to prevent further illness. People with spinal muscular atrophy usually develop secondary illnesses because of their inability to move freely and the lengths of time for which they are immobile. These conditions can be quite serious in themselves, so medical experts look at ways to prevent them whenever possible. The exoskeleton doesn't just add quality of life to kids with the disease – it literally adds life itself for them. It's also believed that new drug therapies will be more effective in children with enhanced mobility.

The device, currently in clinical trials, also may have applications for kids suffering from other conditions.
Banner image: CISC