Robotic Hip Device Works to Prevent Devastating Falls

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If actually brought to market and made widely accessible, a new robotic device could save our aging population from their enemy No. 1 — a debilitating or fatal fall.

The invention has already showed its mettle in a small but rigorous clinical trial. The journal Scientific Reports published the researchers’ findings this month.

An older man tests the exoskeleton on a treadmill-like platform. Credit: EPFL/YouTube

The researchers explained how a device called Active Pelvis Orthosis, or APO, kept eight elderly persons with a median age of 69 and two amputees with a median age of 65 from falling. In fact, they remained upright even when put through hazardous conditions on a treadmill. The subjects wore body harnesses for safety.

“There is an urgent need, from both end-users and society, for novel solutions that can counteract the lack of balance, thus preventing falls among older and fragile citizens,” the authors wrote.

Indeed, with more than 11,000 baby boomers per day turning 65, older Americans have ballooned in number. While modern medicine has resulted in many elderly people living longer but not necessarily better lives, particularly when dementia sets in, others have minds that might remain sharp beyond 100 but wind up losing their lives much earlier to a fall.

Related: Virtual Reality Could Help Prevent Older People From Falling

When an elderly person falls and breaks a hip, for example, rehabilitation can be more than many of them can bear. Many go into a nursing home and die shortly thereafter.

Common reminders that caregivers should always tell their elderly loved ones are, “Don’t try to do things you know you can’t do anymore” and “Always use your walker.” It’s important to urgently convey the fact that a fall could be devastating.

Robot Senses a Fall, Applies Torque

This device is different from others that have tried to prevent falls, primarily because it doesn’t stabilize the person unless it absolutely has to. This prevents unnecessary corrections that could have an opposite effect.

“One of the main problems of current exoskeletons, limiting their use, is the poor human-machine interaction,” according to the researchers. “This issue is particularly important when, as in our case, the users still retain their voluntary abilities.”

Related: Can You Really Shake Your Way to a Runner’s Body?

Most fall-prone subjects still try to counteract their falls but no longer are strong enough to carry out the task. The APO senses a subject trying to correct an imminent fall and gives them the strength to do it.

The technology website Ars Technica summed it up this way. “The device – like the shorts version of exoskeleton pants – can sense an impending fall within 350 milliseconds and apply torque directly to the erring limb. The robotic hip-twist corrects the person’s center of mass and successfully sidesteps a fall.”

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”