Exoskeletons for accessibility

Ying Fang, a postdoctoral at NAU’s Biomechatronics Laboratory works under Zachary Lerner and studies data that the exoskeleton research team has recorded, April 19.

Cerebral palsy, a common movement disorder, can present lifelong obstacles for those who are diagnosed with it. A multidisciplinary research team at NAU, led by bioengineer Zachary Lerner, is working to develop wearable exoskeletons that could assist people with cerebral palsy. Local accessibility experts seem to agree that this technology might be a highly innovative way for people with movement disabilities to navigate their environments.

Tarang Jain is a physical therapist and assistant professor at NAU. He is also a member of Lerner’s exoskeleton research team. Jain said when the team’s research is complete, the exoskeletons will be made available to children with cerebral palsy who choose to use one.

“The aim of the research is to improve walking ability in children affected by cerebral palsy through the use of wearable exoskeletons,” Jain said. “Our hypothesis is that the use of exoskeletons will enhance the neuromuscular ability, posture and motor learning of these children.

Those involved on Lerner’s team said the research is still in its early stages. Some speculate that with exoskeleton technology being relatively new, creating an effective product could be difficult. However, some experts say recent advancements in technology could make certain aspects of exoskeleton research less challenging than they previously were.

Disability Resources Department Director Jamie Axelrod said producing medical devices for people with movement disabilities has been difficult in the past because of the need for precise customization in each individual product.

“Every single person needs a different kind of thing,” Axelrod said. “That’s part of why this kind of research is a little finicky. Any type of exoskeleton, powered brace or prosthetic has to be customized to fit an individual and their physical characteristics.”

Axelrod said despite the challenge of customizing each individual exoskeleton, Lerner’s research seems to be moving along quickly. He said people have only just begun to look into integrating the human nervous system with technology for use in mobility devices.

David Van Ness, a senior lecturer of art at NAU, said Lerner’s exoskeleton will likely be a far more comfortable option for patients than previous prosthetics and exoskeletons because of the technology available to his research team.

Van Ness uses 3D scanners to capture real-world data of patients’ bodies to create accurate prosthetic body parts at MedCAD, a tech company that produces various types of medical devices. Van Ness said with the recent involvement of technologies such as 3D scanners in exoskeleton research, more personalization is available to patients, allowing for the production of more comfortably fitting devices.

Jain agreed that with further advancements in technology, more functionality and comfort can be found in newer exoskeleton models.

“We have always been fascinated by machines and their potential to make human lives better,” Jain said. “In the past, people tried to use exoskeletons for treatment purposes, but most of them failed because of how bulky they were. With new advancements available in the field of exoskeleton development, there is potential for more light and wearable exoskeletons to be successful in improving walking ability in people with walking disorders.”

Jain said Lerner’s research team is a highly efficient one. However, he believes the biggest challenge to their research is finding people to get involved with the study.

Van Ness said from a researcher’s perspective, involving as many fields of study as possible would be most beneficial in achieving the desired outcome. He said it is important to place an emphasis on doing so because multiple perspectives can provide a greater vantage point than when only one specific group of researchers is involved.

Jain said he and other physical therapists decided to get involved with the exoskeleton study because their research interests are complementary. He said he is excited that this research could potentially help some of his patients.

“Walking is critical for everyone in society, so anyone who loses the ability to walk correctly may have long-term health, well-being and independence issues,” Jain said. “This research will identify the effects of wearable exoskeletons on the walking ability of children with cerebral palsy. If we find the effects of the wearable exoskeleton to be beneficial, we will be able to intervene early and prevent long-term health issues in these children.”

Van Ness said the necessity for involvement of physical therapists in completing the exoskeleton research is obvious. However, he thinks the involvement of artists in research is just as imperative.

“Artists understand anatomy better than some doctors,” Van Ness said. “Although it’s kind of weird, we understand things in a more kinesthetic and physical way than in some of the more technical disciplines.”

Van Ness said he views art and science as one in the same. He believes the involvement of artists in moveable exoskeleton research is necessary because the research is a humanistic endeavor.

“The ideas of designers are very important,” Van Ness said. “They give it that human touch. It makes it so that [exoskeletons] have more of a human feel instead of a more industrial one.”

Despite the benefits that new exoskeleton technology could bring, Axelrod said it is crucial for people not to allow their excitement for these advancements to lead them to stop accommodating for people who might choose not to use a wearable exoskeleton.

“This kind of research is important because it gives people options,” Axelrod said. “I think there is a perception that the goal of everyone who can’t walk or who uses a wheelchair is to walk again, but that’s not true. There are a lot of people who find using a wheelchair is how they’ve navigated throughout their whole lives. They’d actually rather see changes in their environments that make it easier for them to be mobile.”

Axelrod said the biggest concern for people researching these types of mobility devices is the accessibility features made available to those that choose not to make use of exoskeleton technology. He said he’s worried that if exoskeletons become prominent enough, people will stop building facilities that are accessible to current mobility devices.

“I think the researchers have a responsibility and probably understand the need to share that this isn’t going to work for everyone, or that everyone might not choose to use exoskeletons,” Axelrod said. “While this is one approach we can offer people, we still need to put energy and effort into other approaches as well.”

Axelrod said the public should support research like the movable exoskeletons because it aims to provide new options to people with movement disabilities. He said it is also important to advocate for creating spaces that are accessible to everyone, regardless of what mobility devices they choose to utilize.