Plug-and-play exoskeleton boosts autonomy for wheelchair users

A modular 'plug-and-play' exoskeleton that clips apart for easy transportation is designed to work in conjunction with wheelchairs to allow users to stand up and walk for short distances.

GENOA, ITALY (REUTERS) - Life without the wheelchair is the ultimate goal of many powered exoskeletons being developed around the world.

But a team from Italy says this isn't yet viable. Instead, they're working on an exoskeleton that can be operated solely by the user, without the help of others.

"We cannot at present substitute the wheelchair - the function it has - for a person with spinal injuries. They currently use it in a very efficient way and technology doesn't allow, so far, to substitute such a device," said Lorenzo De Michieli, project manager for Rehab Technologies.

"Our idea is not to replace the wheelchair because paraplegics can do everything with the wheelchair. But our idea is to introduce a new concept which can make possible a combined use of an exoskeleton with the wheelchair," said Matteo Laffranchi, technical director for Rehab Technologies.

The are two electric motors on each leg, one at the knee and one at the hip.

The battery, attached to the wearer's lower back, lasts about three hours on a single charge.

The makers call it 'plug-and-play', with the modular design easily clipped apart for ease of transportation.

Crucially, a user can put it on by themselves.

"We have interviewed some patients that have used some other types of exoskeletons and... in the end for them it was really uncomfortable to ask people to help them in sitting down and taking them around. So they want to be fully autonomous. By having a fully modular system it's much easier to transport and to take it around, so in the end we try to tackle this issue," said Laffranchi.

The team hopes it will eventually help wheelchair users complete everyday tasks independently, like reaching for items in the kitchen or using the toilet unaided.

Initial tests have been encouraging. A number of clinical trials are planned this year to further optimise its design before commercialisation.