A robotic leg designed to help amputees walk more comfortably could signal a shift toward a new wave of prosthetic limbs.
Assistant professor from the University of Texas, Dallas Robert Gregg is developing the leg, using sensors that feed software, allowing the prosthetic to quickly adapt to how the wearer moves and stays balanced.
"The projected increase in mobility-related disabilities therefore presents a grand challenge to the American workforce and health care system," says a report from the University of Texas, Dallas. "Recent robotic prostheses and orthoses have the potential to restore mobility in impaired populations, but critical barriers in control technology currently limit their performance and practicality."
Usually, robotic prosthetics are actively controlled through the step of the user, however, the leg developed by Gregg uses a more passive approach. The algorithm that controls the leg uses motion sensors and performs one single calculation to find out when it should apply force. This makes the leg much more energy efficient, providing a much more natural step.
According to Gregg, test patients have given very positive feedback, suggesting that the leg was following them rather than that they were following the leg. When the wearer starts or stops walking, the leg responds. It also responds if the leg is speeding up or slowing down.
The software for the leg was created by Gregg and his team, however, that hardware was developed by a team at Vanderbilt University. Gregg's team is now developing a robotic limb of its own to complement the software. Gregg says that, within the next few years, the technology could be commercialized.
A number of advancements have been made in the area of robotic limbs in the past few years, and not just for humans. Alphabet-owned Boston Dynamics has developed a series of robots that can move naturally and dynamically, enabling them to stay balanced even on rough terrain. Most bipedal robots, however, require a number of sensors and extreme precision in how they are controlled to avoid falling over.