21 Apr 2016

'Thought control' next step in robotic exoskeletons

From Nine To Noon, 9:36 am on 21 April 2016

New Zealand engineers who designed robotic legs being used in the rehabilitation of US soldiers are working on introducing 'thought control' to their units.

Auckland-based company Rex Bionics was started by engineers Richard Little and Robert Irving more than a decade ago. Mr Irving had developed multiple sclerosis, and his friends were trying to find ways to help him stay active.

Rex Bionics makes exoskeletons: specifically, robotic legs that allow someone whose only option is to sit to stand upright and move.

The units have tethered leg straps, an upper harness and abdominal support, and the user controls its movement with a joystick.

Rex Bionics recently won a contract with the US Army to rehabilitate soldiers who have lost the use of their legs.

Mr Little told Nine to Noon the army contract would be about exploring the possibilities of rehabilitation.

"We're starting to explore the use of the device for people ... who have lost multiple or all of their limbs."

He said that would mean making some alterations to the machines, and while the units were usually controlled by a joystick, the engineers were considering other options.

"We can actually do thought control and voice control as well, so these are adaptations we will probably be making for some of those soldiers.

"It's not really reading thoughts as such ... what we do is pick up electrical signals off the scalp so when you think to move or think to walk or think to sit, or any of these things, there's a unique pattern of electricity in the brain, and some of that comes through into the scalp, and you can measure that with simple electrical sensors on the scalp.

"It sounds kind of science fiction-y and quite cool from a technical point of view  - but actually linking someone's intention to move with their movement actually has a great rehabilitation effect."

Mr Little said 30 units had been sold for $NZ186,000 each, and were being used in rehabilitation centres around the world.

They were working on bringing the cost down, he said.

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