What a day we are living in. Science has done much for able-bodied people, but it has done seemingly miraculous things for disable people, as demonstrated by a double amputee being able to run a race at the Paralympics. Now, scientists at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in California, are skipping miracles and surpassing science fiction. Researcher An Do and his team have come up with a robotic gait orthosis (fancy name for robotic exoskeletal legs) that are completely controlled by the mind of the user and could provide a form of mobility and independence for people living with permanent spinal cord injuries.
The device has been proven successful in tests performed by able-bodied subjects. So far the robotic orthosis is only capable of starting and stopping the walking process, but the team hopes to soon start tackling more intricate functions like sitting or turning.
To use it, the user wears an EEG cap, which sends signals to the brain-computer interface (BCI). Depending on the signal, the BCI will tell the robotic legs to start walking or stop. The BCI determines the signal by use of the bright red and dark blue sections of the EEG scan. A continuous feedback loop is able to determine when the user wants to walk or stop and does so within a 5 to 7 second delay as in Lokomat therapy. The team also monitors electrical signals present through the subject’s leg muscles and a gyroscope helps balance while the prosthesis –currently supports 85% of the users weight.
The team first tested to see if EEG signals could control an avatar in a CG environment. After the success of that stage, test subjects are now being put in actual robotic leg prosthesis and the results are very promising. After 5 hours of practice on the virtual system, an able-bodied user was able to master the robotic prostheses in 10 minutes with no false signals. Reaching this 100% response rate is a monumental success. Keep in mind, any mistaken signal could be potentially fatal for an actual patient.
As stated earlier, the team has much work to do on the project. The next step is to get someone with a spinal cord injury to master the virtual and physical systems. They also must prove the system is energy and computing power efficient as well as safe.
It is true robots are here to stay, but I doubt they will take over the world alone. Cyborgs on the other hand…