A new soft wearable robot arrives from Harvard laboratories that supports the movements of the arms in patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): similar to a vest, it is equipped with pneumatic actuators positioned under the armpits which inflate like compressed air balloons helping the upward movement of the shoulder.
The device, light and intuitive, is the result of a three-year project led by Tommaso Proietti, now a researcher at the BioRobotics Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa.
The results of the first tests on 10 patients were very encouraging, thanks to the robot they found better motor skills and less fatigue.
The findings are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
"The idea of the robot was born at Harvard University because there are pioneers in the field of wearable soft robots: after developing a line of research dedicated to leg support, in 2019 they hired me to work on the arms as well", Proietti tells ANSA.
In the space of three years, this new device took shape, which stands out from those currently available for its lightness.
"The wearable jacket, made with elastic and partially reinforced materials, weighs a few hundred grams, while the electronics, batteries and control part are integrated into a sort of belt that unloads its 3.6 kilograms of weight on the pelvis , making it easier to walk,” explains the researcher.
To make robot control easy and intuitive is the presence of inertial sensors (similar to those of smartphones) which warn when the patient is trying to make a movement: within 30 seconds the system reprocesses the information and personalizes the control, inflating the actuators under the armpits in order to support and support the action taken.
“As the person begins to lift their arm, the balloons inflate and allow them to reach even higher, improving range of motion by an average of 30%. In our tests, a patient who had only 40 degrees of arm elevation was even managed to reach 80-90 degrees", explains Proietti.
During the trial, volunteers wore the robotic device to perform tasks such as drinking, grasping and moving objects.
The results show a significant improvement in performance with less muscle effort (measured by electromyography).
"The patients who tried the robot were very happy: they found it simple and intuitive and asked us to be able to use it right away", adds Proietti. "At the moment this is not possible, because it is only a university prototype ”, but the hope is that in the future a startup can be born to develop the product and bring it to the market.