Robotics

How a Robotic Exoskeleton Is Helping a Paralyzed Acrobat Walk Again

Silke Pan usually swung 22 feet above the ground on the trapeze, but on that day in September 2007, she was just 13 feet up. Pan, a performer with Switzerland’s Nock Circus, had just finished a seven-month gig at the Fiabilandia Amusement Park in northern Italy, where her troupe performed seven days a week, six shows a day. Now they were on a two-week break. But Pan, a contortionist and acrobat, didn’t take the break. She and her long-time partner, Didier Dvorak—a juggler, unicyclist, and her husband—wanted to fine-tune their act before the next gig began. So back up on the trapeze they went.

Pan remembers that Dvorak was hanging by his feet from his trapeze, his hands outstretched to her, as she swung from her own trapeze, hands reaching toward him. She knows she was meant to catch his hands in hers, as she had countless times during the 15 years she had been performing professionally.

But she doesn’t know what happened next, because she can’t remember. Others have had to fill in the blanks for her (but not her husband; it’s too painful for him to talk about, she says). They say that as she and Dvorak swung toward each other and she let go of the trapeze, they missed each other’s grip.

Pan plummeted to the ground. She landed on her head at the feet of the spotter, whose job it was to catch her if something went wrong. He, too, had missed.

“At first they thought I was dead because I didn’t move or respond,” she says.

She awoke in an Italian hospital to learn she was paralyzed from the waist down due to an injury to her T10 and T11, or 10th and 11th thoracic vertebrae, located in the lower mid-back.

For someone who had devoted her entire life to pushing the boundaries of what her body could do in the service of entertaining people, it was devastating to be unable to move. “I felt as if I was born again,” she recalls. “I lost everything from my identity. People who knew me, knew me as a circus artist and an acrobat. I was like a baby in an adult body. I didn’t know what to do with my life. All the things I had thought before about what I could do were things that weren’t anymore possible.”

Yet last year—nearly a decade after she became paraplegic—Pan began to do something she never thought would be possible again: walk. It became possible thanks to Twiice, a powered lower-limb exoskeleton developed by engineers and scientists at the Laboratoire de Systèmes Robotiques (LSRO) at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Pan has taken so thoroughly to the exoskeleton that not only does she walk in it—she competes in it.

The augmentation of the human body with technology isn’t new; prosthetics can be found as far back as ancient Egypt. Nor is the idea of enveloping the body in a functional shell revolutionary; armor is essentially an exoskeleton. But taking the concept of the exoskeleton from protection to mobility is more recent. As robotics specialist José Pons and his colleagues from Spain’s Instituto de Automatica Industrial recount in Wearable Robots: Biomechatronic Exoskeletons, in 1883 one H. Wangenstein proposed a “Pneumatic Bodyframe” for paraplegic scientists that would be controlled by “Neuro-Impulse Recognition Electrodes” attached to the wearer’s temples. He enthused, “Even running and jumping are not beyond its capabilities, all controlled by the power of the user’s mind.” It’s unclear whether Wangenstein ever attempted to build his bodyframe.

Decades later, in the early 1960s, the U.S. military began investigating designs for a powered “suit of armor,” Pons writes, as did the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory and General Electric. This interest has continued to the present day; in 2000, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded the development of the Bleex exoskeleton, built by a team at the Berkeley Robotics & Human Engineering Laboratory; later iterations were called the ExoHiker and HULC. In 2015, DARPA beta tested an exoskeleton created by Harvard’s Wyss Institute on enlisted soldiers; the goal is to lighten the load of their heavy packs and reduce their metabolic cost during long missions.

But while the military has been at the forefront of developing the tech, wearable robotics for industry, prosthetics, and orthotics are catching up. In the past decade or so, the number of teams developing wearable robots has grown tremendously. Today, many companies are making them. They serve a variety of purposes, from load bearing (military and industry) to helping people move (prosthetics and orthotics).

It’s with orthotics that LSRO comes into the picture. The Rehabilitation and Assistive Robotics lab, a division of LSRO, is headed by robotics engineer Mohamed Bouri, and it was his idea to build the exoskeleton that restored Pan’s ability to walk. Bouri’s initial goal was to create one for people less than 5 feet tall—mainly children. While there are several commercially available adult-size exoskeletons, including the Phoenix, ReWalk, REX P, and Ekso, there are none for kids, says Tristan Vouga, a Ph.D. student in microengineering at LSRO. (One child exoskeleton is in preclinical trial.)

Bouri tasked Vouga with creating a design for the exoskeleton. Microengineering is key to the production of Switzerland’s most famous export—watches—but it’s also highly useful in robotics, Vouga says. In early 2015, he came up with the initial design for an exoskeleton that was lightweight, easy to operate, relatively low cost, modular, and adjustable. The latter was especially important because every spinal injury is different, and kids grow. Ideally, every exoskeleton would be customized for its user.

The LSRO engineers and scientists built the exoskeleton in 18 months, using mostly carbon-fiber parts that Vouga fabricated in the lab with new manufacturing techniques developed specifically for the exoskeleton (details of which Vouga won’t disclose because they’re proprietary). Weighing about 30 pounds, it’s one of the lightest exoskeletons in the world. The lab can manufacture a personalized exoskeleton in a few days.

The engineers named the device Twiice. “The idea is that they’re two people walking—actually, two pairs of legs: the human and the robot, and they have to walk together,” Vouga says. “It’s a collaboration. It’s like a dance: You have coordinate, to be aware of each other, and there’s this real symbiosis between the two actors.”

But there was a snag: a pressing deadline. The team had learned about the first-ever Cybathlon, a competition for disabled athletes to be held in Kloten, Switzerland, on October 8, 2016. The goal was to showcase the latest developments in assistive technology—devices aimed at making daily life easier for people with disabilities.

Bringing a child in to “pilot” or beta test the very first trial of this new technology was going to be problematic. “It’s hard to bring children in for ethical reasons,” Vouga says. It would require a complex approval process involving not only a child but their parents and doctors. By that point, October was just months away. They needed to train someone to use the exoskeleton if they wanted to field an entry in the Cybathlon.

The team decided that what they needed was a very small—but adult—competitor. That meant they also needed a new, slightly larger, exoskeleton. Switching gears, the team constructed another one in just two weeks.

Now they needed the competitor to pilot it. They approached a local wheelchair club looking for the ideal recruit: small and slim, with superior upper body strength.

But that wasn’t all. They aimed not only to enter the Cybathlon, but to win it. “We wanted to find someone who is competitive and who was already an athlete,” Vouga says. “That’s hard to find.”

Shortly after her accident, doctors in the Italian hospital implanted a metal spine stabilizer in Pan’s back. As she recovered, they told her they were impressed with her positive outlook and that her sunny smile was an example to other patients.

“I hadn’t realized I was smiling,” she recalls. It was sheer habit. “As a circus artist, I had learned to keep smiling. When I was on stage, I always had to smile, and the smile had to come from my heart, because if I would smile only with my face, I always thought it wouldn’t look real.”

The truth was, she told her doctors, “‘I‘m really sad. It’s terrible for me.’ But I didn’t show it.”

After leaving Italy, Pan spent nearly seven months recovering in a Swiss hospital. When she left the facility, she tried to return to her old life. She and Dvorak developed a show in which she performed in a wheelchair. It was successful enough that the pair was contracted by Fiabilandia to bring the show to the amusement park.

That’s how, in 2009—two years after the fall that took her mobility—she found herself back at the scene of the accident. “I thought it would be good because I didn’t want to close my eyes to what had happened,” she said. “I thought I needed to see the reality.”

She badly miscalculated how it would affect her. The experience was devastating. “It was a most difficult time, because every day, I heard the music I had heard two years before. I met some of the same artists I had worked with, and every day I couldn’t stop comparing myself to what I had been,” she says. “That was very hard, because I felt really handicapped. I saw myself in the wheelchair. I could only move my arms and speak, and before I was … standing on one hand, and hanging from my trapeze. Compared to what I was before, I felt as though I was nothing.”

She decided she had…

Get To Know History’s Greatest Robots

Robotic inventions have fascinated, amazed, and helped humans for thousands of years. Here are seven of history’s greatest self-operating machines.

1. ARCHYTAS’S STEAM-POWERED PIGEON

Nobody knows who created history’s first robot, but some historians claim it was Archytas, an ancient Greek mathematician who constructed a steam-powered wooden pigeon between 400 and 350 BCE. The robotic bird could reportedly “fly” for more than 650 feet along a wire suspension line before running out of steam.

2. LEONARDO DA VINCI’S PROGRAMMABLE CART

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous inventions was a human-like robot resembling a Germanic knight, which Leonardo drew (and possibly built) around 1495. But years earlier, around 1478, the polymath envisioned a self-propelled cart that many experts now consider to be history’s first programmable automaton.

Instead of steam power or an internal combustion engine, the car-like vehicle was powered by a wound-up spring, and ran on clockwork. The cart’s operator could also make the wheels turn at specific points in time during a journey by placing pegs into small holes.

In 2004, Italian experts teamed up with computer designers, engineers, and carpenters to make a real-life model of Leonardo’s moving machine. Lo and behold, it operated as he originally intended. (Experts demonstrated a one-third scale replica of the cart, fearing a full-size replica of the powerful vehicle would crash and harm someone.)

3. THE MECHANICAL TURK

In 1770, inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen built the Mechanical Turk—a life-size, chess-playing automaton, clad in traditional Turkish garments—to entertain Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. There was just one catch: The machine was a fraud.

The Mechanical Turk sat at a wooden cabinet filled with cogs, gears, and other mechanisms, with a chessboard on top. More often than not, the automaton won a match, and it even traveled across Europe and America, playing against (and beating) luminaries like Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

Naysayers suspected the machine didn’t operate independently, and they were right. Von Kempelen (and later, an engineer named Johann Maelzel, who purchased the Turk from Von Kempelen) recruited talented chess players who hid inside the Mechanical Turk’s cabinet and operated the Turk’s arm with…

Some Misconceptions About Robots

Robots are omnipresent in pop culture. Since the term was coined nearly a century ago, robots have played the role of sidekick, villain, and protagonist in some of the greatest science fiction works of all time. But there’s a lot that books and movies get wrong about our mechanical companions. Here are 11 myths about robots that your favorite TV shows and films have helped spread.

1. ROBOTS ARE A MODERN INVENTION.

It’s hard not to associate robots with visions of the future, but we’ve been building artificial helpers to complete tasks for us for thousands of years. In 400 BCE, long before the advent of electricity, the inventor of the pulley and the screw built a wooden pigeon capable of flight. Centuries later the Roman writer Petronius Arbiter built a doll that moved like a person and in 1557, inventor Giovanni Torriani constructed a wooden bot to pick up the Holy Roman Emperor’s daily bread. Some early concepts more closely resembled the metal machines we know today, including designs for a mechanical knight published by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495.

2. THE MAJORITY OF ROBOTS ASSEMBLE CARS.

If you had cited this as fact a few decades ago, you would have been correct: The automotive industry once accounted for 90 percent of all robots in use. But today they’re good for a lot more than assembling cars. Half of the world’s robots can be found in diverse environments including hospitals, labs, and energy plants, with the other 50 percent still working in auto manufacturing.

3. ROBOTS ARE EXPENSIVE.

Home robots have been around for a while, but the steep price of some flashier products has put the technology out of reach for many households. Believe it or not affordable home robots do exist—buyers just have to know what they’re looking for. Smaller, simple robots like kids’ toys, rolling alarm clocks and smart security cameras can all be purchased for less than $50. If you’re willing to set your price ceiling a little higher, more interactive robots that do everything from keeping you company on walks to encouraging you to exercise can be found for under $200.

4. ROBOTS WILL LEAD TO MASS UNEMPLOYMENT.

While it’s true that increased automation will lead to the extinction of many jobs, this issue often gets blown out of proportion. Americans have had anxiety over being replaced with new technology since the 1800s. As has been the case throughout history, future technological developments will likely also play a hand in job creation. So while bank tellers, telemarketers, and loan officers may be taken over by computers in the not-too-distant future, new jobs we can’t yet predict will likely take their place.

5. ONLY PROFESSIONALS CAN BUILD ROBOTS.

You don’t need an engineering degree to build a robot of your own. With the right tools and an urge to tinker, anyone can build a basic robot at home for around…

A List Of Common Misconceptions About Robots

Robots are omnipresent in pop culture. Since the term was coined nearly a century ago, robots have played the role of sidekick, villain, and protagonist in some of the greatest science fiction works of all time. But there’s a lot that books and movies get wrong about our mechanical companions. Here are 11 myths about robots that your favorite TV shows and films have helped spread.

1. ROBOTS ARE A MODERN INVENTION.

It’s hard not to associate robots with visions of the future, but we’ve been building artificial helpers to complete tasks for us for thousands of years. In 400 BCE, long before the advent of electricity, the inventor of the pulley and the screw built a wooden pigeon capable of flight. Centuries later the Roman writer Petronius Arbiter built a doll that moved like a person and in 1557, inventor Giovanni Torriani constructed a wooden bot to pick up the Holy Roman Emperor’s daily bread. Some early concepts more closely resembled the metal machines we know today, including designs for a mechanical knight published by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495.

2. THE MAJORITY OF ROBOTS ASSEMBLE CARS.

If you had cited this as fact a few decades ago, you would have been correct: The automotive industry once accounted for 90 percent of all robots in use. But today they’re good for a lot more than assembling cars. Half of the world’s robots can be found in diverse environments including hospitals, labs, and energy plants, with the other 50 percent still working in auto manufacturing.

3. ROBOTS ARE EXPENSIVE.

Home robots have been around for a while, but the steep price of some flashier products has put the technology out of reach for many households. Believe it or not affordable home robots do exist—buyers just have to know what they’re looking for. Smaller, simple robots like kids’ toys, rolling alarm clocks and smart security cameras can all be purchased for less than $50. If you’re willing to set your price ceiling a little higher, more interactive robots that do everything from keeping you company on walks to encouraging you to exercise can be found for under $200.

4. ROBOTS WILL LEAD TO MASS UNEMPLOYMENT.

While it’s true that increased automation will lead to the extinction of many jobs, this issue often gets blown out of proportion. Americans have had anxiety over being replaced with new technology since the 1800s. As has been the case throughout history, future technological developments will likely also play a hand in job creation. So while bank tellers, telemarketers, and loan officers may be taken over by computers in the not-too-distant future, new jobs we can’t yet predict will likely take their place.

5. ONLY PROFESSIONALS CAN BUILD ROBOTS.

You don’t need an engineering degree to build a robot of your own. With the right tools and an urge to tinker, anyone can build a basic robot at home for around…

How Robots Can Help You Be a Better Pet Owner

Feel like your pet parenting skills need improving? Technology’s got you covered. Here are seven ways that robots are making it easier to love, feed, and monitor your furry friends.

1. A ROBOTIC LITTERBOX THAT CHANGES ITSELF AUTOMATICALLY.

Let’s face it: No matter how much you love your kitty, dealing with their litter box isn’t always fun. But if you forget to change it, your cat’s bound to be offended—or even worse, punish you by “going” somewhere else. Luckily for both you and your feline, one technologically advanced pet care product company has created a robotic, self-cleaning litter box.

A weight-sensitive sensor detects when your cat is hopping in and out of the box. Once your kitty’s made its final exit and the litter’s done clumping, the smart litter box sifts the waste from the litter and deposits it into an odor-controlling base compartment. (A flashing light will alert you when it’s finally full.) The best part? As a pet owner, all you’re required to do is empty the waste compartment every seven to 10 days (or more frequently if you have more than one cat) and refill it with litter.

2. A ROBOT THAT FEEDS YOUR PETS.

The only thing animals love more than belly rubs and snuggles is food—and if you forget to give them their kibbles, you can say sayonara to both. But thanks to a variety of WiFi-controlled food-dispensing robots now available on the market , there’s no reason for you to forget to feed your pet ever again. The robotic feeders hold several pounds of food and distribute it on a regular schedule, allowing you to adjust feeding times and portion sizes accordingly. Some feeders even feature HD cameras, microphones, and speakers so you can keep ultra-close tabs on your pet’s eating habits.

3. A ROBOT THAT WALKS YOUR DOG.

Walking your dog is a great way to squeeze exercise into your daily routine and bond with your canine pal. But if you’re sick, busy, or preoccupied, it’s hard to find…

11 Cool Facts About Robots in the Home

It’s 2016, and robots that cook and clean for us have yet to take over the American household. But that doesn’t mean that homes staffed with robots aren’t a possibility in the near future. Here are 11 facts about the past, present, and future of personal robots.

1. PEOPLE IN 1900 THOUGHT THEY’D BE COMMON BY NOW.

At the turn of the 20th century, a group of French artists produced a series of paintings depicting what they imagined life would be like in the year 2000. Among the personal robots they envisioned were sweeping bots, grooming bots, and razor-wielding barber bots. We haven’t quite reached that level of robot integration in the home yet, but it’s a world that’s a lot more feasible than it was 100 years ago.

2. SOME OF THE FIRST HOME ROBOTS WERE CHILDREN’S TOYS.

One of the hottest gifts a kid could receive in the 1980s was a programmable robot. Some came ready-to-go while others gave owners the option to assemble them themselves. Once they were put together, the robots could perform simple tasks like moving around and lifting light objects. The robotic toys on the wish lists of today’s children are much more sophisticated.

3. AUTONOMOUS VACUUMS HELPED MAKE DOMESTIC ROBOTS MAINSTREAM.

The first domestic robot to break into the home in a big way wasn’t a humanoid maid or butler, but a disc-shaped piece of dust-sucking machinery. Robotic vacuums were an exciting development for homeowners in the early 2000s. Using motion sensors, the devices could navigate obstacles in a room while detecting dirty spots on the floor. Millions of robot vacuums have been sold since their debut. The technology has come a long way since the early robot vacs. Some robots have advanced features such as laser navigation, Wi-Fi connectivity and corner clever technology—much more sophisticated than the early round bounce-around robots.

4. SERVICE ROBOTS ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE FEMALE.

Robots are officially genderless, but the voices given to our computerized helpers tend to be those of women. Some experts blame gender stereotypes for this trend: When robots are coded female, they’re often fulfilling traditionally feminine duties like caretaking. Another theory suggests that roboticists are hesitant to use men’s voices in AI because male robots have been…