Elderly people in future will be able to enjoy their favourite activities longer thanks to a portable exoskeleton designed to reinforce the function of aging joints and bones.
Designed by researchers from the Aalborg University in Denmark, the exoskeleton - or walking robot - will be equipped with advanced sensors that detect movement, triggering the robotic support to assist the action carried out by the user. The user will, for example, be able to kneel down to tend to the flowers in his or her garden and lift and carry objects around the house with greater ease.
Electric motors driving the motions will be able to only provide about 30 to 50 per cent of the energy needed to carry out the activity, so the users will need to employ their own muscles as well.
The researchers likened the exoskeleton to power-steering in a car or a battery-powered bicycle, which adjusts the amount of assistance to how strongly the rider steps on the pedals.
In every moment, however, the researchers emphasised that the user needs to feel that it is them controlling the robotic walking assistant and not the other way round.
“Many older people are mentally fit and want to continue to be active, but their physical abilities are steadily deteriorating,” explained Shaoping Bai, Associate Professor at the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Aalborg University. “This is an attempt to complement the strengths of older people so they can continue to be mobile and live independently for a longer time.”
The project, called the AXO Suit, expects to see the first prototype ready in about a year.
The device, inspired by similar exoskeletons for paralysed people, comes in a time when the world is tackling issues related to its aging population. According to the World Health Organisation, there will be more than two billion people over the age of 60 by 2050.
The most difficult task, the researchers believe, will be to persuade the elderly people, who are traditionally reluctant to adopt new technologies, to use the suit.
“Of course, there is also a social challenge in terms of whether or not our potential end users will accept the technology,” said Shaoping Bai. “That's why we call it a tool instead of a robot. Just the word robot will keep more conservative people from trying it. It smells of Robocop or Iron Man. We’d like people to think of it as a tool or as an aid instead.”