Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

New Striding Robotic Cane on Wheels Provides Walking Stability

Aug 12, 2019 01:13 PM EDT

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Impairment in mobility affects about four percent of people from a wide age range of 18 to 49 and about 35 percent of those people aged 75 to 80.  The traditional cane is no doubt, a big help to people, most especially the elderly with difficulty in mobility.  But who knew that this simple machine could still be improved?

Researchers at the Columbia University have recently created a robotic cane that is equipped with wheels and that would track the stride of the user and provide stable support during walking.  As the researchers report in a recent issue of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, the device is engineered to that it copies the light touch of a guiding companion.  Lead researcher, professor of mechanical engineering and regenerative medicine at Columbia University, and director of Columbia's Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory Sunil Agrawal says that elderly people often benefit from light handholding for support.  This mimicked condition would allow the user to take narrow strides, keeping the center of gravity in place and therefore, preventing wobbly walks.

To test the effectiveness of the device, 12 healthy subjects were given virtual reality headsets that created a sense of a different environment.  This was to unbalance the way they walk.  They were allowed to walk on a mat instrumented with sensors that recorded their step length and walking rhythm.  They walked ten laps on the mat without the robotic cane and then another ten laps with the cane, under different conditions that tested the way they walked with visual disturbance.

The researchers found that in every virtual scenario with the robotic cane, all the subjects seemed to narrow their strides.  Because of this, there was a decrease in their base support.  But this positively corresponded to a decrease in the amount of oscillation at the center of gravity indicating an increase in walking stability, which can be attributed to the light-touch contact.

Agrawal gave insight on the next step to their research.  And this would be on testing the device on elderly individuals and individuals with balance and gait issues, to be able to study how the robotic cane can improve their gait.  They would also conduct experiments with healthy individuals, incorporating their head and neck motion with their vision to stimulate the vestibular system.  Agrawal believes that this development is the kind of technology that would fill the gap in care at low cost.

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