Rise of the Exoskeletons – Get Up… and Kick-Off!

An artist's impression of one of the ground-breaking medical event due to take place at the Sao Paulo, Brazil 2014 Footbal World Cup opening ceremony. Image: Walk Again ProjectMind Controlled Exoskeleton Demonstration at 2014 World Cup Opening Ceremony

On 12 June at Arena Corinthians in São Paulo, shortly before 5pm local time, a young paraplegic Brazilian youth will stand up from a wheelchair… walk over to midfield… and take a kick in the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil! 

It’s fever pitch again.  Every four years.  But you don’t need to wait for the big final to see really exciting stuff.  It is set to happen from the very start…

A fully-paralysed Brazilian teen will don a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton to take the first ceremonial kick of the World Cup game at the tournament’s opening ceremony, in the first public display of a possible wheelchair replacement.  The complex robotic suit, built from lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics, has a simple enough function.  When a paraplegic person straps themselves in, the machine does the job that their leg muscles no longer can.


The Walk Again Project – Revolutionary Tricks

Led by Miguel Nicolelis, the Walk Again Project is a non-profit, international collaboration among the Duke University Centre for Neuro-engineering, the Technical University of Munich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, the University of California, Davis, the University of Kentucky, and Regis Kopper of the Duke immersive Virtual Environment.

The exoskeleton is the culmination of years of cooperation by an international team of scientists and engineers as part of the Walk Again project.  The robotics work was coordinated by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University in Munich, Germany.  And French researchers built the exoskeleton.


Mind-Blowing Neuro-Engineering

For Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University, North Carolina, it is the culmination of over a decade of workNicolelis’s team focused on ways to read people’s brain waves, and use those signals to control robotic limbs.

A photograph of scientific pioneer Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University.
Miguel Nicolelis wants to make one paraplegic Brazilian kick off the 2014 World Cup in São Paulo on the 12th of June.

Miguel Nicolelis is a pioneer in the field.  In the 1990s, he helped build the first mind-controlled arm.  Back then, it were rats who first learned that they could manipulate the device to get a drink of water… simply by thinking about doing so.

In that project, an electronic chip was embedded in the part of each rodent’s brain that controls voluntary muscle movements.  Rows of wires that stuck out from the chip like bristles on a brush picked up electrical impulses generated by brain cells and relayed those signals to a computer.

Researchers studied the signals as the rats pushed a lever to guide the arm that gave them water, and they saw groups of neurons firing at different rates as the rats moved the lever in different directions.  An algorithm was developed to decipher the patterns, discern the animal’s intention at any given moment and send commands from the brain directly to the arm instead of to the lever.  Eventually, rats could move the arm without pushing the lever at all.


The Exoskeleton Body Suit

A functional diagram of the mind-controlled exoskeleton. The captions read: "Patient wears a cap fitted with 32 electrodes that pick up EEG signals from the brain. Computer in backpack converts brain signals into commands for the exoskeleton. Battery and hydraulics system in backpack move the exoskeleton's limbs. The battery can power the exoskeleton for two hours. Gyroscopes on the exoskeleton keep it balanced. The exoskeleton is made from alloys and polymers to make it light and flexible. Sensors on the foot plates detect footfalls and give sensory feedback to patient through the sleeve of their shirt." 

As the patient carrying out the demonstration is fully paralyzed, the exoskeleton wearer has to re-learn how to walk in a virtual environment.

Dr Nicolelis has been training nine paraplegic men and women, aged from 20 to 40, to use the exoskeleton at a neuro-robotics rehabilitation lab in São Paulo.  Three of them were selected to attend the championship’s opening event, before the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, with one heading on to the pitch to perform the state-of-the-art demonstration.

To operate the exoskeleton, the person is helped into the suit and wears a cap fitted with electrodes that pick up their brain waves.  These signals are passed on to a computer worn in a backpack, where they are decoded and used to move hydraulic drivers on the suit.  Also carried in the backpack, is the battery that powers the exoskeleton and allows for two hours of continuous use.


‘Feeling’ your legs moving

The operator’s feet rest on plates which have sensors to detect when contact is made with the ground.  With each footstep, a signal shoots up to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the wearer’s shirt.

The device seems to fool the brain into thinking that the sensation came from their foot.  In virtual reality simulations, patients reported feeling their legs moving and touching something.  Nicolelis likens this effect to the rubber hand illusion, where the mind is tricked into thinking that an inanimate object is part of the person.

“It confirms our prediction that we are going to elicit a sensation that the exoskeleton is an extension of their body,” Nicolelis said.

One patient, whose spinal injury meant he could not feel or move his legs, told Nicolelis: “I feel like I’m walking on the beach, that I’m touching the sand.”

In other trials, patients have used the mind-control system to walk on a treadmill.

Nicolelis’ patients appear to have taken to the exoskeleton.  “This thing was made for me,” one patient told him after being strapped into the suit.

Dr Nicolelis says he believed the technology was now ripe for turning into everyday devices to help paraplegics and that it could ultimately replace wheelchairs.


Safety Tested

“All of the innovations we’re putting together for this exoskeleton have in mind the goal of transforming it into something that can be used by patients who suffer from a variety of diseases and injuries that cause paralysis,” he said.

“The movements are very smooth,” Nicolelis says.  “They are human movements, not robotic movements.”

A photograph from the Wallace and Gromit movie, "The Wrong Trousers".
The chances of the exoskeleton malfunctioning, and stomping off by themselves into the sunset, are apparently very slim.

The system has been through numerous safety tests.  The exoskeleton is fitted with multiple gyroscopes to stop it falling over during the balancing act of bipedal walking.  As an extra safety measure, it was fitted with multiple airbags.

Last March, Dr Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues went to football matches in São Paulo to check whether mobile phone radiation from the crowds might interfere with the suit.

Electromagnetic waves could make the exoskeleton misbehave, but the tests were encouraging.


Wheelchairs may soon be a thing of the past…

A mind-controlled leg armour may sound more like science-fiction than modern medicine.  But after decades of testing on rats and monkeys, neuro-prosthetics are finally beginning to show promise for people.  Devices plugged directly into the brain seem capable of restoring self-reliance to stroke victims, car crash survivors, injured soldiers and other patients hampered by incapacitated or lost limbs.

For those of you hoping for miracles at football’s greatest tournament, the opening scene may be the closest you get to witnessing one.  For Miguel Nicolelis, the moment demands faith of another kind.

As hundreds of millions tune in for the opening match, they will see the first public demonstration of technology Nicolelis claims will turn wheelchairs into museum pieces.

And that’s going to be so much cooler than the actual football… 


Tell us what you think...