11 Giugno 2024

Improving the lives of people with motor difficulties: one step at a time

An intelligent robotic walker has been created at UniTrento to help people with motor difficulties caused by serious neuro-cognitive disorders. Scientists are working to develop another prototype that will have other customizable functions and better interactivity. The project will benefit from Next Generation EU funds for the NRRP managed by the Inest consortium. A fundraising campaign has been launched to support the project

Walking is a major challenge for people with neurodegenerative diseases such as thesaurosis, Rett syndrome, spinocerebellar ataxia, spinal-muscular atrophy, since childhood. These neurological disorders cause the loss of motor skills, the inability to walk, the loss of the ability to use hands, a lack of interest in social interaction and other conditions that severely compromise the quality of life of patients and their loved ones. Geneticists and medical researchers are committed to find new treatments, but others are at work to help these people in their daily lives, with walking aids for example.

This is where robotics comes into play. A team of the Department of Industrial Engineering (DII) of the University of Trento has manufactured an intelligent walker that, using advanced software and algorithms, helps people with serious motor difficulties. 
Mariolino De Cecco, Professor of Mechanical and Thermal Measurements at DII, together with his research team, has developed a robotic walker that will help patients with rare syndromes regain the ability to walk.
Hidden behind a large red heart are special force sensors that, circling the patient's waist, provide stability.
Unlike other types of aids that are already in use, which cannot always be used without assistance, this walker interacts with the user, receives the user's commands and stimulates any walking ability.
The device can be used for motor rehabilitation and as a walking aid in everyday life. The engineers of the MiRo team (Measurement instrumentation and Robotics Lab) in fact have developed a functionality that ensures that the device does not replace the movements of the users but responds to the stimuli it receives from the users based on their will.
However, this first prototype has a limit: it only walks forward on a linear path. The researchers are working to build a second prototype capable of changing direction and thus giving the user full freedom of movement.
The mechanics were developed in collaboration with ProM Facility, the prototyping centre of Trentino Sviluppo of which the University is a partner.
Their goal is to extend the functionality of the first prototype of the robot, which has been successfully validated by patients with Rett syndrome, in order to add some customizable functions and make it available to growing and adult patients with other neuro-cognitive diseases.
The device will be equipped with a three-dimensional camera pointing at the legs of the patient that will acquire data on the force of thrust from the pelvis and the beginning of the walk. In addition to the camera, the second prototype walker will be able to receive data from physiological sensors worn by the user in order to estimate their stress level. Depending on the emotional state and well-being, the robot can adapt the control parameters (reactivity, maximum speed, etc...) to perform the required action. Andrea Del Prete, Professor of Automation, and Giandomenico Nollo, Professor of Electronic and Computer Bioengineering, of DII, are working on the development of this type of sensors, in collaboration with Giovanni Guandalini, physiatrist at the Villa Rosa rehabilitation hospital in Pergine Valsugana.
The new device also aims to support caregivers and clinical professionals. Through an augmented reality interface connected to a tablet, they will be able to design rehabilitation programmes and to interact with the device to stimulate the walking phases. The interface is developed in collaboration with Hirokazu Kato of the Japanese Institute of Science and Technology in Nara (Naist), who is considered one of the fathers of modern augmented reality.
The project benefits from Next Generation EU funds for the NRRP managed by the Inest consortium. The University of Trento is part of the Innovation Ecosystem as the leader of Spoke 2, the research group focusing on technological and social development for digital health applications and citizen health.
The University of Trento launched the fundraising campaign “Sosteniamo ogni passo” (supporting every step) to help create this innovative walking aid and make it available to people with severe neuro-cognitive deficits. You can make your donation at this link:
Anffas is a partner in the project for the fundraising and for the testing phase, in the framework of the agreement it signed last year with the University.