Speeding up physiotherapy with soft robotics

A Swiss lab develops robotic exoskeleton tech for good.

Robotic exoskeletons are no longer a thing of science fiction and could become a commonplace aid for physiotherapy patients within a few years. These worm-like tubes could help people who have sustained physical injury or paralysis to energise their muscles and speed up the physiotherapy process.

Researchers at an engineering laboratory in Switzerland are developing ‘soft’ robotic mechanisms that simulate the way human muscles contract and expand. Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's Reconfigurable Robotics Lab have turned to silicon and rubber compositions that are safe to use on the body.

Individually, the small tubes move in a simple way but once many of them are strung together, the resulting structure undulates in a way that is comparable to real muscles. They can form a mesh of gently pulsating tubes to be wrapped around a joint or appendage.

Currently, the technology is still too large in size to be optimally effective, but the designers are refining it and compressing the materials to eventually be similar in size to human muscle tissue. As a first prototype product, the designers have created a soft robotic belt to help a stroke victim restore muscular control to their torso and midsection. Matthew Robertson of EPFL explains:

“We are working with physical therapists from the University Hospital of Lausanne who are treating stroke victims. The belt is designed to support the patient’s torso and restore some of the person’s motor sensitivity.”

The tiny elastic tubes pulsate with the help of electronically controlled air pressure inside special ‘soft balloons’. The engineers at Reconfigurable Robotics Lab believe the technology is versatile enough for multiple future applications – in addition to reinvigorating muscles out of entropy, the pulsing tubes could be used to handle fragile cargo in specialised transportation situations.

The developers have published the blueprints of their design in progress on an open-source portal for anyone to download and build for themselves. View the video below by EPFL for more information.

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