This Italian exoskeleton could revolutionize physiotherapy

The term “exoskeleton” brings to mind images of futuristic battlefields and exotic industrial settings, but where bionics are most likely to achieve widespread use first is the medical field, in therapeutic and rehabilitative applications. Researchers at Rome’s Università Campus Bio-Medico hope to speed along that mechanized revolution with a new cybernetic support frame for the lower limbs.

The design, which made its debut in a patent application published last week, represents a departure from the other exoskeletons that have emerged over recent years to help people with mobility issues. Instead of contouring the system along the human anatomy, the researchers architected its kinetic structure from scratch to enable more efficient movement assistance.

Each of the two braces in the frame includes a mechanical joint installed on the side of the waistband to support the thigh and another right above the knee to help with motion of the lower leg. That adds up to a lot more components than in the wire-driven exoskeleton Hitachi applied to patent earlier this year, but the impression of bulkiness is deceptive.

The unique arrangement of the motors and support links allows the wearer to fit the frame to their bodies without having to worry about keeping everything perfectly aligned to their joints, which is necessary in conventional anthropomorphic designs. That creates considerably more room for adjustment, killing two birds with one stone.

Any manufacturer that might decide to bring the exoskeleton to production will be able to take advantage of its asymmetrical force distribution in order to place heavy components such as the motors driving the out of the way to reduce inertia. Meanwhile, the wearer will have the freedom to set the specific configuration of the braces according to their comfort.

That’s thanks to specialized mechanisms that the researchers added into the design to help adjust the tightness of the cuffs and the length of the connecting links.  The result is an exoskeleton that is more comfortable to wear and easier to use than the many  of the current alternatives out there, not to mention healthier due to the lack of unnecessary weight on the joints.

That customizability should make the frame equally suitable for use by individuals and physiotherapy departments where a single unit would need to serve multiple patients with different body types and requirements. So don’t be too surprised if exoskeletons begin appearing in your local hospital over the next few years.