The Iron Man Suit for Walking by Yasmine A van Domburg

Paralysis affects about one in fifty people– amounting to approximately 5.4 million people in the United States alone (Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation). With spinal cord injury (SCI) patients accounting for about 27.3% of the total amount of the population suffering from paralysis, and an estimated 500,000 people suffering SCIs per year (WHO), it is quickly becoming clear that a large proportion of the population has significantly decreased standards of life as a consequence.

There are three types of major paralysis: quadriplegia (also called tetraplegia), affecting all four limbs; hemiplegia, affecting one side of the body; and paraplegia, affecting only the lower limbs. Although people suffering from paraplegia are still able to use their upper body, they have a lower life expectancy and often require assistance with tasks such as getting dressed, or personal grooming (WHO).

Enter Wandercraft, a French start-up company working in tech. The first video footage of their innovative Atalante exoskeleton was released on La Chaîne Info just two weeks ago. The video shows a girl with paraplegia wearing the suit and walking while dribbling a basketball.

An exoskeleton is a wearable device that works together with the user. It is placed on the body, and works to support and strengthen the user’s capabilities. They are often used in the military, but in recent years have gained popularity in healthcare. Suits like the Atalante have been designed by other companies, but require crutches for stability, which heavily stresses patients’ shoulder muscles. This causes pain, fatigue, and limiting rehabilitation – and requires patients’ hands such that they are not free for other uses. Being upright could alleviate further issues patients often have, such as cardiovascular issues and muscle loss (Engadget, WHO).

Wandercraft had run some successful trials with clients for several years before releasing the video of Atalante in use. According to Managing Director Matthieu Masselin, there has been a massive emotional response from test subjects, many of whom had not been able to walk since their accidents (Engadget). Floriane, who can be seen using the Atalante in the video, says the suit “offers hope” to her. (BBC)

The exoskeleton has two moveable legs and a back rest, which are attached to the user with multiple straps which evenly distribute pressure for comfort. The straps fully support the patients’ weight. Moving the upper body automatically cause the exoskeleton to move – Atalante mimics human movement with sensors and motors. Sensor information runs through a microcomputer attached to the back, and algorithms define a motor output for walking and self-stability. However, in order to maintain balance, the exoskeleton weighs a heavy 60kg (Engadget).

The company hopes to reduce Atalante’s size and bulkiness in order to eventually make it available for home use. Further aims are to functionalise the suit for use on uneven surfaces, such as pavements or slopes, as well as more complex movements such as walking up stairs. This will require much more research, however. As is, the suit is being marketed at rehab centres to help stroke patients recover their motor ability. About 33.7% of cases of paralysis are caused by strokes (Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation) – improving rehab could drastically reduce this number.

Watch the Atalante in action here

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