Founder and head of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, Dr Conor Walsh, has been using soft robotics to help people with mobility problems and stroke patients walk confidently again, resulting in his recognition at this year’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Having achieved proof of concept earlier this year, Walsh and his soft exosuit promise to revolutionise how patients recover from trauma. Here he tells Avaunt about his greatest challenges.
The exciting thing about robotics is in bringing together mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science to create something that is smart. Then there is the added dimension of getting that robot to interact with a person.
The first wearable robot I tried was a rigid design – a metal frame that fitted to the legs. I was the test pilot for it and the robotics actually made it harder to walk. Adding mass to someone’s legs was an obvious issue, but then there was also the near impossibility of lining up a rigid mechanism with biological joints.
So I moved into soft robotics. Using flexible and lightweight materials and textiles instead of rigid components, the issue of alignment was no longer such a problem. Now, however, the apparel design aspect has become a challenge – the difficulty of attaching the robotics to a person in a comfortable way shouldn’t be underestimated.
At the beginning of the project we had one sewing machine and we worked with seat belt webbing, which we could use to strap the device to a person. It worked but wasn’t very comfortable. Bringing people to the team who have a functional apparel design background has been instrumental to our work. They understand which lightweight materials can be used that don’t stretch and how to integrate them into a garment that can attach to the body, as well as showing us how we can distribute pressure in an interesting way.
Another big challenge is that we all walk differently – stroke patients in particular – so we had to work out how to personalise these systems. There are algorithms that determine when to give some assistance to the walker, but how do you tailor that to each person? I think this is where the software can really deliver, and in the future we could even use machine learning, with the system automatically learning how the person walks and adjusting the control parameters.
If you think about walking, it’s very much a dynamic system – we’re moving forward in a cyclic way and if you give an impulse or a burst of energy at the right time, you can have a pretty big effect. The motivation is to give small amounts of assistance, at the right time, through very flexible and lightweight systems to improve people’s mobility.
In conversation with Pip Harrison
2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which seek to encourage new ventures and recognise those who explore beyond boundaries. Conor Walsh is one of 2016’s five Rolex Laureates.