Mobility Aids and MS: The Future of Walking Aids

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Many types of walking aids do a good job of helping those of us who need it. Research has been responsible for many new advances to the long-lived foot braces, canes, crutches and walkers. Corporations and individual inventors continue to develop new and improved walking aids. The Twenty-first Century brought with it promises of an exciting high-tech future. The goal is for everyone to walk while remaining upright. Arjan Rensma of the Dutch innovation agency TNO* tells us research is underway on hip sensors that "help keep its wearer upright." He also says there is great potential for "Intelligent...natural limb prosthetics controlled by the mind." It's beginning to sound a bit like science fiction, don't you think? One unique invention I talked about in the Walkers segment is the Segway. This scooter-like device depends on a gyroscope for balance and the rider's position for steering. Pretty clever. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and head of DEKA, is developing a remarkable prosthetic Arm named Luke for Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame.

I saw a 6o Minutes story about DEKA's arm with a workable, touch-sensitive hand. A downside for MSers is that the DEKA's Luke arm actually uses live nerves to command and control the hand and fingers, and our nerves don't necessarily work consistently. It is exciting that this is being done, and it gives us hope for the future of walking aids. Japan is actively working on futuristic robotics, and there are demonstrable results. Honda has developed a Bipedal Humanoid Robot capable of walking and climbing stairs. Much research has gone into the study of this robot named Asimo, and the research has direct benefits to those of us with walking disabilities.

Here is a site with several Honda robot videos, showing Asimo walking, running, climbing stairs, and even dancing Be sure to scroll down to the last short video (less than two minutes). It starts by demonstrating a robotic hand similar to the DEKA Arm, then continues by showing Asimo providing support for a disabled man as he transfers from a bed to his wheelchair. This is still a stand-alone robot rather than a walking aid, but it did provide transferring aid to a man with limited leg control. This robot seems to be leading us in the right direction.

Honda is working toward the goal of helping people walk. To be fair, they were trying to improve their own bottom line by developing a walking assist device for plant workers who have to lift heavy objects, stand in long lines, or run around making deliveries in large warehouses. Luckily, the resulting device also has benefits for those of us who have walking difficulties. It appears to be somewhat cumbersome, but the concept and potential is exciting. In November 2008, Honda presented their device "designed to support body weight, reduce stress on the knees and help people get up steps."

Engineer Jun Ashihara** at Honda's Tokyo headquarters said "This should be as easy to use as a bicycle . . . It reduces stress, and you should feel less tired."

Toyota, yes, another automobile manufacturing company, is working along the same lines as Honda. Toyota works with Cyberdyne, a Japanese robotics company. Cyberdyne has developed an exoskeleton computer as part of a robot suit. A less cumbersome belted device called HAL (hybrid assistive limb) reads brain signals to help people move about with mechanical leg braces that strap to the legs.

Cyberdyne and Daiwa House Industry offer a five-year lease of HAL to care facilities. This technology is no longer fantasy, but reality in Japan, the country with the fastest growing aging population. More work is needed to make these devices more usable, easily available and more affordable. Walking aids by high-tech industries remain in the future, but not necessarily the distant future.

Until the robotics are obtainable, people with mobility problems can choose one or more of the walking aids discussed in earlier article segments."  MSers often make use of a combination of several, selecting the one that will work best for the day, depending on distance, where you are going, and how you are feeling that day.

For next week's article, we go beyond walking aids and will be rolling out wheelchairs.