Assistive exoskeletons help older adults live independent lives
19 May 2015
Author: Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, senior lecturer ergonomics and human factors, Department of Design and Manufacturing Technology, UL.
Irish engineers and researchers, in collaboration with partners across Europe, are set to develop exoskeletons to assist older adults in their daily lives.
Researchers at the Design Factors Research Group of the University of Limerick (UL) will team up with Cork-based company MTD Precision Engineering in the design and manufacture of an innovative assistive exoskeleton for older adults. The work will be carried out as part of the AXO-SUIT project, which is funded under the Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme and co-funded in Ireland by Enterprise Ireland.
The AXO-SUIT project brings together three universities and five companies across Europe that are active and experienced in the research and development of assistive devices. Co-ordinated by Aalborg University, Denmark, AXO-SUIT will run for three years with a total budget of almost €3 million. The project aims to combine expertise in engineering, robotics, ergonomics, and commercialisation to create a cutting-edge solution that meets older users’ functional needs at a feasible cost.
Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, senior lecturer ergonomics and human factors in the Department of Design and Manufacturing Technology, leads the UL research team, and describes the importance of the project: “This is a very exciting project for our group, which will see our expertise in user centred design in health innovation make a significant impact to the quality of life of older adults.
“The AXO-SUIT project further builds on the Design Factors Research Group’s continued success in national and internationally funded medical device design research.”
MTD Precision Engineering is a company with a proven track record in research and development, engineering support and technical leadership in design and manufacturing. It serves a diverse range of sectors including pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, energy, medical device manufacture, electronics, automotive and aerospace.
Sean Hayes, managing director, is enthusiastic about the company’s role in the AXO-SUIT project: “Participation in innovation-driven European projects is a new and exciting departure for us. We feel that our history and experience of supporting companies in the life science sector – particularly during the product design and introduction stages – gives us the unique ability to contribute and participate in the AXO-SUIT project.”
According to the World Health Organisation, the proportion of the world’s population aged over 60 years will double between 2000 and 2050, from approximately 11 per cent to 22 per cent . Limitations in physical functioning become more prevalent with advancing age, and have negative impacts on older adults’ quality of life [2, 3].
As such, there is great demand for assistive solutions to help individuals to maintain functional capacity and activity levels as they age, thereby preserving health, independence and wellbeing in later life. In addition, solutions which allow older adults to continue working in paid and/or voluntary capacities for longer will have broader socioeconomic benefits, as well as benefits for the individual [4, 5].
The elderly and disabled assistive devices market is rapidly expanding. Having been valued at €11 billion in 2012, it is expected to grow to reach an estimated value of €18.5 billion by 2019 . AXO-SUIT will aim to target the consumer aspect of this market, as a user-friendly and relatively inexpensive product.
Exoskeletons as assistive devices
Exoskeletons have been envisaged as methods of augmenting human performance for decades, but have struggled to be successfully implemented until recent years. Challenges in relation to power consumption and power supply, sensing and control are being continually addressed thanks to recent technological advances. Research into the ergonomics of powered-assistive interaction for people is also continuing to aid progress in designing exoskeletons that can adapt to complex human biomechanics .
The potential applications of exoskeletons are many and varied. Examples range from large, expensive exoskeletons designed for military usage, to smaller-scale devices for use in manufacturing and other industries. Exoskeletons have also been designed for rehabilitation purposes and as assistive devices for individuals with a variety of health conditions and/or functional limitations. Less unwieldy and expensive components have seen exoskeletons advance towards increasing commercial viability in these fields in recent years.
AXO-SUIT: future directions
AXO-SUIT aims to deliver commercially viable lower-body, upper-body and full-body assistive exoskeletons which will support older adults in carrying out their daily tasks, and participating in occupational and social activities. The lower-body subsystem will be designed to optimise mobility, while the upper-body subsystem will assist activities that involve holding, reaching and grasping. The full-body AXO-SUIT will combine these functions to enable older users to perform complex whole-body activities such as lifting and carrying.
Sean Hayes, of MTD Precision Engineering, said: “Our team are using leading-edge design and manufacturing hardware and software to assist with the design and manufacture of the testing rigs and the suit itself in order to bridge the gap between the excellent research results and the implementation of these results in the final working suit.
“Our ability to work in close partnership with the University Of Limerick and all the other European consortium members gives our company confidence and recognition that even as a small Irish manufacturing company that we can contribute at the highest level of European Innovation Projects.”
Dr Leonard O’Sullivan noted: “The research and development on the concept in Ireland involving the University of Limerick with MTD Precision Engineering is very exciting. We have achieved very impressive results in a short duration through our close collaboration. The strong commercial orientation of the concept keeps guiding the design and the experience of MTD in advising on design for manufacture has been very important.”
- World Health Organization (2014) Facts about Ageing, available: http://www.who.int/ageing/about/facts/en/ [accessed 13th April 2015].
- Holmes, J., Powell-Griner, E., Lethbridge-Cejku, M. and Heyman, K. (2009) ‘Aging Differently: Physical Limitations Among Adults Aged 50 years and Over: United States, 2001–2007’, NCHS Data Brief, 20.
- Wilhelmson, K., Andersson, C., Waern, M. and Allbeck, P. (2005) ‘Elderly people’s perspectives on quality of life’, Ageing & Society, 25(04), 585-600.
- Fujiwara, Y., Shinkai, S., Kobayashi, E., Minami, U., Suzuki, H., Yoshida, H., Ishizaki, T., Kumagai, S., Watanabe, S., Furuna, T. and Suzuki, T. (2015) ‘Engagement in paid work as a protective predictor of basic activities of daily living disability in Japanese urban and rural community-dwelling elderly residents: An 8-year prospective study’, Geriatr Gerontol Int, doi: 10.1111/ggi.12441. [Epub ahead of print].
- Jenkinson, C. E., Dickens, A. P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R. S., Rogers, M., Bambra, C. L., Lang, I. and Richards, S. H. (2013) ‘Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers’, BMC Public Health, 13, 773.
- Transparency Market Research (2013) Elderly and Disabled Assistive Devices Market Report.
- Dollar, A. M. and Herr, H. (2008) ‘Lower Extremity Exoskeletons and Active Orthoses: Challenges and State-of-the-Art’, Robotics, IEEE Transactions on, 24(1), 144-158.