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Micro-computers and lightweight materials bring new age of assistive technology

Joseph Flaig

The Aergo posture support system would not have been possible 10 years ago, says creator Sheana Yu
The Aergo posture support system would not have been possible 10 years ago, says creator Sheana Yu

In 1964, engineer Pat Johnson built a door ramp and an electric hoist for his disabled sister.

They were the first projects of what eventually became Remap, a charity providing disabled people with bespoke equipment to enable them to live more independently.

Assistive technology that is widespread today was not commercially available at the time, so the charity’s early projects focused on essential needs.

Tools and materials available to engineers were also more rudimentary, said Remap CEO David Martin, limiting the possibilities for more personalised – and therefore comfortable and effective – devices.

Just a few years ago, people without the use of their hands faced an uphill struggle to control everyday items, he said. “Going back not so very far, people would have been told ‘You just have to wait, or shout’. People have the added independence now of being able to do things for themselves.”

Sensor sensibility

That dramatic change was enabled in some projects by ‘sip-and-puff’ switches, breath-activated sensors that have become more available in recent years. That new availability is part of a wider trend, with previously out-of- reach technology becoming accessible for volunteer engineers and biomedical entrepreneurs alike.

Miniature computers such as the Raspberry Pi, first released in 2012, can collect data from sensors and automate the movements of mechanical devices. Lightweight materials such as carbon fibre are becoming more widespread, and 3D printing is finally finding its way into homes, workshops and public facilities, offering a myriad new possibilities.

A wheeled walking frame recently built by a Remap volunteer for a man whose right arm was amputated below the elbow highlights the progress. The process for building sockets has been transformed, said Martin.

“Previously people would have made a shape, from a hard metal like steel, lining it with felt to try and make it as comfortable as possible... now you can 3D-scan and print something with a nice, neat fit for a residual limb. That is quite a game-changer for the comfort and look.”

Volunteer engineers can also go beyond essential needs such as independent movement, building bespoke devices to help people enjoy hobbies and free time, such as a printed snooker cue rest or a gaze-controlled computer mouse.

“That stuff could not have been attempted a few years ago, but people have access to the kit now,” said Martin. “They can be really life-changing.”

Dynamic support

Volunteer engineers are not the only ones enjoying newfound freedoms with accessible technology. Sheana Yu is the creator of the Aergo, a ‘posture support system’ that attaches to wheelchairs and other seats. The device automatically adjusts to young users’ shifting positions by using digital controls and self-adjusting cushions with pressure- sensitive air cells, providing dynamic support and keeping them in healthy postures.

Would it have been possible 10, 15, 20 years ago? Yu’s answer was immediate: “No. It would be much more difficult to build something fast and get feedback fast, which is critical in getting a device right.”

She added: “You are, on a level, managing someone’s medical condition so they can be more independent or mobile. This requires a lot of tests and feedback and, without the current prototyping technology we have, like Arduino, this process would take much longer to get right.”

Arduino microcontrollers allow quick and easy tweaks to code, helping Yu validate her device with users. Miniaturisation is key to the Aergo’s realisation, as well as ‘lightweighting’ of conventionally heavy parts such as batteries and pumps. Users often have to propel themselves, using their arms to push a wheelchair, the Aergo and their own body weight.

New, lighter components have made that possible.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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