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New Exoskeleton Suit Aims to Help The Elderly Remain Active

An international team of researchers have developed a portable robotic exoskeleton device that could serve as tool to help elderly patients remain active. The exoskeleton could make it easier for them to take walks, lift, and carry objects, and improve overall body movement.

Kristopher Sturgis

An exoskeleton for the elderly.

A novel exoskeleton was developed using a diverse collection of advanced sensors to assist with various bodily movements, announced researchers at the Aalborg University in Denmark. The suit is equipped with motors that can help support the user with everyday movements such as lifting the arms or moving the legs, providing extra strength when needed. The device was designed to help elderly people by providing them extra strength and support for different body movements, all in an effort to encourage a more active lifestyle.

Exoskeleton technology has been around in various raw forms for some time, but engineers are still searching for ways to refine the technology for practical use. It's an area that holds a lot of promise within the realm of rehabilitative medicine, as engineers have made strides in devices for paraplegics hoping to walk again and assisting with rehabilitation, but, to date, the technology is not widely used for either purpose.

Shaoping Bai, associate professor at the Aalborg University, however, has something else in mind: an exoskeleton designed to help older people who want to remain active in their later years.

"There are some very advanced and very costly exoskeletons developed for the medical world," Bai said in prepared remarks. "But that's not what we're working on. The product we'll end up with will be more something you put on for half an hour or an hour if you need to perform a task that you can no longer do."

One of the group's biggest challenges when developing the suit involved designing it to be easy to use for their target audience--one that is not typically very receptive to technologies with new user interfaces.

Bai remarked that their group was careful to ensure that older users don't feel like the exoskeleton suit is stronger than they are, as this could make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. To ensure this aspect, researchers limited the performance of the electric motor in the suit to a maximum of 30-50%. They felt this kind of limited strength would go a long way towards ensuring that the user is in control of the technology, not the other way around.

Bai acknowledged that they want to stay away from the word robotic when describing the device, as it might deter some older users from ever trying the suit.

"That's why we call it a tool instead of a robot," Bai says. "Just the word robot will keep more conservative people from trying it. We'd like people to think of it as a tool or as an aid instead."

The current model has been in the works for ten months, and the team expects to be able to present the first portable prototype within the next year. The hope is to have the device ready for the market within two years time, providing users with a fully functional suit that is both efficient and easy to use.

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at Minnesota Medtech Week, November 4-5 in Minneapolis.

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