As It Happens

Scientists have created an exoskeleton to stop elderly people from falling

Scientists in Switzerland and Italy have developed a "stumble suit" that can detect when someone's about to trip and adjusts their balance so they remain upright.
The stumble suit is wearable technology that can tell when someone is about to fall, and re-establishes their balance. (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

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Swiss and Italian scientists have developed wearable technology they say will help elderly people walk without fear of falling down and hurting themselves.

The "stumble suit" —  created by a team of researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and Scuola Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Italy — works by mapping the particular way a person walks and generating an algorithm based on their gait.

Once the machine knows how you move, its algorithm can detect variations in your walk that indicate you're about to fall. When that happens, the suit's motors push down on both thighs, helping to re-establish balance.

Silvestro Micera, a biomedical engineering professor at Sant' Anna, told As It Happens host Carol Off there is "a strong clinical need" for a device like this.

The researchers say elderly people are involved in 40 per cent off fatal injuries related to falling in Europe.

"Old people, seniors, are still able to walk, but they're not able to react in a fast way ... to possible falling events," Micera said.

Silvestro Micera says there is a strong clinic need for a device like the stumble suit. (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne)

The idea, Micera said, is to give people a device that lets them use their own skills most of the time, but will kick in and give them a boost when needed.

"If you provide just a small amount of help, but enough to reduce falling probability, you are relying also mainly on the ability of the users to do it by themselves," he said.

The team tested the device on eight people in Italy, including 69-year-old Fulvio Bertelli, who sported the exoskeleton on a treadmill specifically designed to trip him up.

"I feel more confident when I wear the exoskeleton," Bertelli said in an EPFL press release.

Fulvio Bertelli, one of the team's test subjects, said the exoskeleton gives him more confidence when he walks. (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne)

While primarily aimed at the elderly — researchers say it could also have implications for amputees, people with disabilities and those with neurological conditions.

The next step is to make the stumble suit a little more comfy, and a little less cumbersome.

Already, Micera said, they've cut the weight of the device from five kilograms to four and made it completely wireless. 

"It will be lighter and smaller," he said. "Seniors sometimes use a cane to help walking. Why not using a special belt?"

The team's research was published in the journal Nature.

Researchers had their test subject walk on a treadmill designed to trip him in order to test out the suit's effectiveness. (Nature)