To enable paraplegics to regain the use of their legs is the ambition of the Wandercraft project, which has created the first exoskeleton that reproduces the movements of walking identically: With it, paraplegics can regain the most advanced natural walking in the world; several million people will be able to walk again. And today, after clinical trials throughout 2017, for the first time paraplegics have stood up and walked in an exoskeleton without crutches. We're a long way from humanoid robotics...
Esaid the old wheelchair! AtalanteIn homage to the heroine of Greek mythology, whom almost nobody could beat in the race, this old ancestor on wheels has been replaced by a new one. Created by the startup Wandercraft, the walking exoskeleton was already a big winner with first prize in the Centrale Paris incubator competition in May 2012, then in the EDF Pusle 2014 competition in the Health category and many other prizes since then. In September 2017, it completed a second €17 million round of financing and was able to start the process of obtaining the first certifications to market the exoskeleton on the world market for healthcare centres. A man-machine alliance with a bright future. Especially when you know the team: 35 mathematicians, roboticians and bio-mechanics of the highest level. Average age, 29.
Innovation does not sufficiently benefit people with reduced mobility
In France, there are an estimated 30,000 paraplegics. Every year, 750 more people become paraplegic. From a broader perspective, there are 420,000 paraplegic people in the European Union. Today, a disabled person should be able to move around independently just like anyone else.
Vincent Blaclard, Alexandre Boulanger and Nicolas Simon, all three students at the Ecole Polytechnique de Paris, started from a simple observation: innovation does not benefit people with reduced mobility enough. The founders of Wandercraft therefore wanted to realise "the dream of being able to walk again" for the 30,000 paraplegics living in France.
The three entrepreneurs therefore came up with motorised structures: the product is a motorised exoskeleton, which is fast, stable, safe and intuitive to use, allowing paraplegics to stand, sit, stand up, walk, go up and down stairs independently.
Placed on either side of the legs, these devices are intuitively controlled by the paraplegics, who retain the use of their bust.
After five years of development following the company's founding in 2012, paraplegic patients walked back into clinical trials. Further clinical trials are scheduled in the coming months and in 2017, the heavy exoskeletons are developing, becoming thinner and lighter. While improving their performance and safety.
In 2018, exo will be available in physical medicine and rehabilitation centres, first in Europe, to allow new treatments and longer and more frequent sessions.
The team is working on the exotic personal. It must be taught gradually to overcome the obstacles that stop wheelchairs. The aim is to design a device to accompany the wheelchair in daily life.
Mastering complex technologies to walk simply
It took three technological breakthroughs to recreate natural walking. With the first use of dynamic robotic algorithms in an exo. A successful technological gamble to imitate human walking. It is then the first exo capable of replicating the movements of the human body with 12 robotic joints, animated by ultra-fast electronics. It has the first totally intuitive piloting system because inertial micro-centres understand the user's intention by the inclination of his bust. A box, no larger than a smartphone, is in charge of executing the commands and movement algorithms: To lean forward, no controller is needed, the user emits the intention and, in a few thousandths of a second, the intention to move forward is translated into motion. To turn, simply rotate the shoulders to the right or left .
First successful clinical trials
Along with doctors, recognized experts in Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine (PRM) - neurology and orthopaedics - have overseen the development since the beginning of the project, with professors such as Isabelle Laffont, Alain Yelnik and François Boyer on the scientific committee. Professor Nicolas Petit, director of the Centre Automatique et Systèmes de MinesParisTech, has headed the Robotics Scientific Committee since the first steps of Wandercraft and the work is continuing in close liaison with Professors Jesse Grizzle, from the University of Michigan, and Aaron Ames, from Caltech.
The team also works with expert physiotherapists to validate the safety and performance of the exotic and research its health benefits. The first trials have just been completed at the Centre de Médecine Physique et de Réadaptation Apajh in PIonsat, Auvergne, with patients suffering from paraplegia.
They stood up and walked for the first time in years, safely, independently and without crutches.
Several clinical studies are planned in major physical medicine and rehabilitation centres in France and abroad. They will make it possible to improve performance and research the effects on the health of patients using the equipment.
As for the selling price, it should be close to the price of a top-of-the-range electric wheelchair or a mid-size car.
Next step, in a few years: the manufacture of a leg of the motorized structure.