However you might feel about your body, there is no denying that, when it’s working, it’s great at what it does. Namely, it keeps you standing strong while performing the controlled movements you need to get you through the day. In fact, the design is so good that emulating it has become a science all of its own. Groups like NASA have built on the idea to create strength-enhancing exosuits. These suits are now making the transition from top-secret military operations to stroke rehabilitation.
Not your usual robot
A far cry from the bulky robots of 1950s Sci-Fi, modern exosuits (such as NASA’s very own Compliant Robotic Upper-extremity eXosuit [CRUX]) are sleek affairs. Composed of soft materials with rigid elements held together by tensile ‘fibers’ that mimic the bones and tendons of the human body, these suits can support and enhance movement without limiting range of motion. But just because they’re sleek, it doesn’t mean they’re not strong. CRUX, for example, has six independent motors that, at least theoretically, can augment any normal arm movement. And because these movements are supported and enhanced, they require fewer efforts on the part of the wearer. This means, among other things, less strain on the heart.
This video shows an example of an exoskeleton for stroke rehabilitation.
The CRUX of the issue
These suits can assist patients in a similar way to traditional physiotherapy or support bilateral training programs. And they might even go some way to helping patients regain a feeling of independence. So while taking these suits into the realm of stroke rehabilitation might seem like an obvious idea, it’s not ready for mass consumption just yet. As well as cost limitations, there are still such issues as optimizing the user interface and conducting studies to ensure that augmented movement doesn’t overstep the wearer’s natural range of motion.
We’re not ready to take this science into the realm of medical fact just yet. However, we’ve certainly taken one step closer to making our Sci-Fi dreams a reality.
The lead author of the original article is Steven Lessard, Department of Computer Engineering, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, USA.