I cringe when I hear policy wonks complain about the excessive use of advanced technology in health care. Sure, advanced technology is often very expensive, but it’s usually worth every penny. Medical technology greatly enhances our ability to diagnose and treat health problems.
Wearable robots, also known as “exoskeletons,” are a great example. Someday we may learn how to cure paraplegia, but in the meantime wearable robots can dramatically improve the quality of life for many wheelchair-bound patients. If there is a way to get this technology to patients who are likely to benefit from it, then who is to say that it is too expensive?
Robotics is advancing rapidly largely thanks to the development of complex control algorithms. Also contributing are inexpensive sensors and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that speed development and ensure robust performance.
I recently spoke with National Instruments, a company providing Hyundai with tools for developing wearable robotics. Hyundai is focusing on patients with knee or hip injuries, patients in rehabilitation, elderly patients, and paraplegics.
Based in Austin, Texas, National Instruments specializes in products to help scientists and engineers solve difficult problems. In this case, Hyundai needed to acquire data from multiple sensors, perform real-time analysis, and refine robot control algorithms.
At one time, it seemed like giving patients the ability to control motorized limbs required interfacing directly with nerves. Fortunately, it’s now possible to use multiple non-invasive sensors to determine the patient’s intent. With a bit of patient training and the right control algorithms, a paraplegic outfitted with a robotic exoskeleton can stand up, walk over flat ground, and sit down.
Work at The Central Advanced Research and Engineering Institute at Hyundai Motor Company is facilitated by National Instrument’s LabVIEW RIO platform. As the number of sensors and actuators increases, control algorithm complexity grows exponentially. The LabVIEW RIO platform not only eases development of complex algorithms, it employs field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to essentially hardwire the algorithms so they can be executed much faster -- fast enough to exert control down to the microsecond level.
Hyundai is using wireless technology (ZigBee) to collect data about the patient’s gait -- data that can be analyzed and used to better control the wearable robot.
The Israeli company ReWalk is already selling exoskeletons in the US for roughly $50,000 each. However, it’s clear that there is a much larger market waiting to be served, so there is probably room for several competing makers of walking assistance wearable robots.
Sunday, June 26. 2016
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