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Robotic Cane can Improve Stability in Walking for People with Impaired Mobility

By incorporating electronics and computation technology to a standard cane that has been around for centuries, a team of scientists at Columbia Engineering have altered it into a 21st-century robotic device that can deliver light-touch assistance in walking to the elderly and others with mobility issues.

A team headed by Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia Engineering, has shown, for the first time, the advantage of using an autonomous robot that “walks” together with a person to offer light-touch support, quite like how one might gently touch a companion’s sleeve or arm to maintain balance while walking. Their study has been published recently in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

“Often, elderly people benefit from light hand-holding for support,” explained Agrawal. “We have developed a robotic cane attached to a mobile robot that automatically tracks a walking person and moves alongside,” he continued. “The subjects walk on a mat instrumented with sensors while the mat records step length and walking rhythm, essentially the space and time parameters of walking, so that we can analyze a person’s gait and the effects of light touch on it.”

He is also a member of Columbia University’s Data Science Institute.

The light-touch robotic cane, known as CANINE, serves as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device enhances a person’s individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, while walking, which consecutively enhances balance and stability.

This is a novel approach to providing assistance and feedback for individuals as they navigate their environment. This strategy has potential applications for a variety of conditions, especially individuals with gait disorders.

Joel Stein, Simon Baruch Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Irving Medical Center, Columbia University

Stein is also chair of the department of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and has co-authored the study with Agrawal.

To try out this new device, the team equipped 12 healthy young people with virtual reality glasses that produced a visual environment that shakes around the user—both side-to-side and forward-backward—to confuse their walking gait. The subjects were asked to walk 10 laps on the instrumented mat, both with and without the robotic cane, in conditions that tested walking with these visual confusions.

In all virtual settings, having the light-touch support of the robotic cane made all the subjects narrow their strides. The narrower strides, which signify a decrease in the base of support and a lesser oscillation of the center of mass, point out an increase in gait stability because of the light-touch contact.

The next phase in our research will be to test this device on elderly individuals and those with balance and gait deficits to study how the robotic cane can improve their gait. In addition, we will conduct new experiments with healthy individuals, where we will perturb their head-neck motion in addition to their vision to simulate vestibular deficits in people.

Sunil Agrawal, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine, Columbia Engineering

Agrawal also directs the Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory.

While mobility impairments impact 4% of people in the age bracket of 18 to 49, this number increases to 35% of those aged 75 to 80 years, decreasing independence, self-sufficiency, and quality of life. By 2050, it is projected that there will be just five young people for every elderly person, as compared with seven or eight currently.

We will need other avenues of support for an aging population. This is one technology that has the potential to fill the gap in care fairly inexpensively.

Sunil Agrawal, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine, Columbia Engineering

The 21st Century Cane for Walking Stability

Demonstration of a robotic cane. (Video credit: Danielle Stramel and Sunil Agrawal/Columbia Engineering)


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