Barcelona-based startup ABLE Human Motion has created the ‘first lightweight, easy-to-use and affordable exoskeleton that restores the ability to walk of people with lower-limb paralysis.’ Thanks to the exoskeletons created by ABLE, people with spinal cord injuries are able to stand up from their wheelchairs and walk again.
ABLE’s goal is to democratise exoskeleton technology and provide solutions to anyone in need of it – whether they’ve lost mobility due to a spinal cord injury, MS, Parkinsons, strokes, or any other illness. ABLE has involved users throughout the design process in order to create technology users will truly be proud of wearing.
There are currently ‘53 different models of exoskeletons in the world [but] perhaps the two most practical and relevant characteristics for the user are the weight and price’, which is why ABLE set out to build the lightest and most affordable exoskeleton possible. Many exoskeletons are hugely expensive and bulky, meaning they can only be used in hospital settings – ABLE’s technology is designed to be affordable and manageable for personal use, restoring the pleasure and empowerment of walking to as many people as possible.
The freedom of movement
ABLE envisions a world where everyone has the freedom to move:
‘Enabling people to move on their own is unquestionably crucial to unleash full human potential. Mobility is a fundamental part of living in society autonomously and freely, engaging in daily activities like working, moving and enjoying leisure time. ABLE Human Motion advanced technology aims to empower every person in a wheelchair, by providing better mobility and greater independence.’
Loss of mobility is a huge thing to adjust to mentally – much of what you were once able to do becomes inaccessible to you and that takes a significant amount of adjustment, especially if you have lost this mobility suddenly due to injury. The incredible creations of ABLE can give people back their freedom, independence, and sense of autonomy. The mental health benefits of ABLE’s exoskeletons cannot be overstated.
A large majority of the world’s infrastructure is designed around able-bodied people with full mobility so, for some people, the need to regain mobility is not down to personal preference but is a necessity of the inaccessible world they live in. People who have suddenly lost mobility as a result of injury or rapidly deteriorating illnesses can find even their own homes are not accessible to them, making regaining mobility a matter of urgency if they are to continue to interact with their surroundings in the same way.
ABLE works closely with BIOMEC, a research group of BarcelonaTech. BIOMEC develops ‘multibody biomechanical models to analyse and simulate the dynamics of human movement, for clinical and sports applications; and design[s] personalised robotic devices for movement assistance and rehabilitation.’ With ABLE’s technology, the intention of the user is detected through inertial measurement units that detect the orientation and acceleration of both legs to detect when a patient wants to take a step forward. Then the ‘device uses electrical actuators in the knee that act as an artificial muscle, flexing and extending the leg’ to mimic natural movement
As well as providing movement assistance and supporting in rehabilitation following injuries, exoskeletons help to tackle health issues caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Sitting all day can affect blood flow and while sedentary muscles can’t burn fat as quickly, which only compounds the problem. These are regular challenges that wheelchair users face, so being able to get up from their chairs would have vast physical health benefits.
A strong competitor
ABLE is far from the only company creating innovative assistive technologies. In fact, there are so many that in Zurich there is an event called Cybathlon where ‘people with physical disabilities compete against each other to complete everyday tasks using state-of-the-art technical assistance systems.’ The event ‘offers a platform to advance research in the field of assistive technology and to promote dialogue with the public about the inclusion of people with disabilities in everyday life.’ ABLE has not yet entered the competition, but their exoskeletons may well feature on the Cybathlon racetrack in future.
On the topic of racetracks, ABLE recently had a visit from Paralympic triathlete Eva Moral who tested out the exoskeleton. Her feedback was extremely valuable and showcased the importance of the synergy between ABLE and their users – after all, it is only by gathering true user feedback that truly beneficial advancements will be made. Whenever Eva’s championship calendar allows it, she’ll be back helping the team build on their work.
ABLE has interest from hospitals in the US and aims to work with clinical institutions here in the UK by 2024; we will certainly be keeping a close eye on their progress until then.
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