Four years ago, Pablo Albisua Albizu's life changed forever.
Just after heart surgery, this former decorator suffered a stroke that left one side of his body paralysed.
Along with undertaking hundreds of rehabilitation sessions, he also volunteered to test a new exoskeleton.
Developed by biomedical engineers, the exoskeleton is made out of aeronautical aluminium. It weighs 12 kilos and it has been designed to assist in the rehabilitation of patients like Pablo, who have suffered strokes.
And it worked, Pablo says.
"Before, when I went shopping in a car, we went around and around to find parking places as close as possible to the shops. And if I was not able to find one, I often just drove back home. I could not find the strength to walk even short distances. Now that has completely changed. I can even go to big shopping malls and I dare to walk around for a long time. That was simply not possible before. I was too tired."
The exoskeleton has six motors that help patients correct their walking patterns.
Parameters like speed or movement angles can be easily customized depending on the needs of each patient.
"This exoskeleton gives us two advantages," explains Iker Mariñelarena Arrizabalaga, a biomedical engineer at Gogoa Mobility Robots, which is based in Urretxu, in northern Spain.
"First, we can correct the patient's body movements that aren't working. And second, we can give patients more customized treatments. In a classical rehabilitation, you can't always guarantee that movements are repeated in the most accurate, efficient way. Physiotherapists and patients do what they can. And patients often get tired or suffer injuries because they are forced into unnatural positions. But with an exoskeleton, you can always guarantee accuracy while repeating movements and you can also get more accurate data."
Assistance as needed
The whole system is based on the "assistance as needed" concept.
The exoskeleton only intervenes when the patient's own efforts aren't able to guarantee safe movement for the rehabilitation process
"The exoskeleton uses sensors to measure the efforts undertaken by the human body," says Juan José Iceta Yurrita, an industrial engineer at Gogoa.
"It then just supplements what the patient's body is already doing. The exoskeleton follows the optimal rehabilitation patterns but, at the same time, it motivates the patient to make as much effort as possible. The exoskeleton just supplements those efforts to achieve the final goal of the therapy. The patient follows that pattern and then we also work with them to help them internalize that pattern in their own way."
Scientists from this European research project are now looking at ways to further improve the exoskeletons.
And they already have some ideas in mind.
"We want to be able to give voice orders to the exoskeleton, instead of using tablets or phones," says Gogoa CEO and Hank Project coordinator Carlos Fernández Isoird. "We've already tested this voice command function; it works quite well. This would be good for physiotherapists, as they would have their hands free to safely handle patients. And rehabilitation would become even more customized."
While still awaiting final product approval, the exoskeleton should come to the market - mainly hospitals and rehabilitation centers - in less than 6 months. Researchers expect the cost to be around €60,000.