A new line of wearable robotics developed by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and The City University of New York, City College (CCNY) could keep seniors on their feet longer. A prototype developed by Hao Su, PhD, an assistant professor at CCNY, and tested by Gerard Francisco, MD, and Shuo-Hsiu (James) Chang, PT, PhD, of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, fared well in a pilot study of people with walking difficulties. Now with the support of a $1.3 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, the three researchers plan to evaluate the model on seniors who have difficulty with their gait or stride.
Conventional exoskeletons are typically heavy, bulky, expensive, and primarily suitable for individuals with little voluntary movement. In contrast, the hybrid soft exoskeleton developed by the team is 60% lighter than commercially available exoskeletons and less costly. It combines the advantages of rigid exoskeletons and textile-based exosuits with assistive control algorithms to monitor, augment, and compensate for the loss of gait function. “Our model is run by the user, not the robot. Wearers aren’t forced to walk in a predefined path,” said Francisco, the chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School and the chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Houston.
The team’s long-term vision is to make assistive robots accessible to everyone who needs them, said Chang, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School and the administrative director of the NeuroRecovery Research Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “There is a pressing need for wearable robots that can improve the quality of life for broader populations in community settings,” he said.