Thought controlled exoskeleton

A robotic hand exoskeleton helps stroke patients integrate rehabilitation exercises into their everyday lives. Credit: ETH

It is now a few years that different teams of scientists have been working on exoskeletons, both in Europe and in the US, with the aim of helping paralysed people, usually after having suffered from a stroke, something that according to worldwide statistics affects one in six people during their lifetime.

One of the problem is the heaviness of such exoskeletons. There are already working prototypes but they are bulky and cumbersome. So far exoskeleton have been created for the whole body or the legs, since this allow the weight of the exoskeleton to be borne by the pavement. 

Now a team of scientists at ETH is working on a very light exoskeleton that can be used in the rehabilitation of people with a paralysed hand or arm and that can restore, to a certain extent their paralysed limb mobility.

Their goal is pretty ambitious as shown in the photo of the exoskeleton on the hand helping the patient to "write" with a pen. What is even more astonishing is that they want to have the exoskeleton controlled by thoughts. You think and your hands write!

The existing prototype is already very light, just 300 g, including all the required motors and power supply. Interestingly, it is manufactured using 3D printers so that it can be tailored to the specific individual using it. It is very accurate, you can pick up an egg without breaking it, and it is also relatively strong, letting you pick up a 1 litre bottle.

So far they are providing the hand supporting exoskeleton for the 4 fingers but not for the thumb: they are working on that although it is proving challenging to have the opposable thumb...

They are also integrating their results with those coming from BCI with the aim of controlling the prosthetic with the brain (with thoughts...).

Quite a bit of work remains to be done, but it is a matter of when, not of if...

Author - Roberto Saracco

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