RAZOR: The exoskeleton that helps people with disabilities walk again

It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie: A hulking, robotic exoskeleton, that can mimic the movements of the human body, and even walk by itself.

But the true technological wonder of the 'Atalante X' lies in its use for people with disabilities.

For hundreds of years, people with lower limb impairments have had to rely on crutches and wheelchairs to navigate the world. However, their mobility is still limited, and long-term wheelchair use can have negative effects on physical and mental health.

RAZOR's Reya El-Salahi went to Paris to meet the people who created the Atalante, and want to use it to help people walk, dance and play sports again.

For robotics engineer Jean-Louis Constanza, it all began 11 years ago. His son Oscar had a genetic disease that made him depend on a wheelchair to get around.

"And he asked me, 'Dad, you're a robotics engineer. Why don't you make a robot for letting me walk?'," he says at the Paris headquarters of French tech firm Wandercraft.

His son was the reason Constanza created the company along with co-founders Matthieu Masselin and Nicolas Simon.

"So that we have a way to decrease all the pathologies that go with sitting in a wheelchair all the time," he explains. "They are very severe pathologies – cardiovascular, urinary, digestive, you lose bone density, you have spasticity, obesity, and actually you die from these pathologies. 

"And the other thing is to try to restore mobility for patients in wheelchairs, for all those who find the wheelchair experience limited – to restore nearly everything."

It took them around a decade to develop the Atalante – an exoskeleton that can balance by itself without external help. Today, it is used in hospitals to help doctors and physiotherapists retrain people to walk again after medical conditions like strokes.


Standing up to the world

The first time Arbiha Ait wore the Atalante, she wanted to cry.

Cancer treatment had damaged the muscles and nerves in her legs and back. By the end of 2017, she was forced to rely on a wheelchair to get around.

But putting on the exoskeleton at Wandercraft's offices helped her do something she never thought would be possible again – stand up.

She even walks across the room, confidently moving forward in sync with the machinery she's been strapped into.

"Before, I couldn't feel my feet on the floor. Now I can again," she says. "I feel better. I feel like you," she says to the RAZOR team.


Moving machinery

The high-tech exoskeleton is made from lightweight materials, including aluminum and carbon-fiber. Motion sensors in the back, feet and legs detect its location and which direction the pilot wants to move in.

It also has motors at several key points, allowing it to mimic human movement as closely as possible. That means the Atalante is subject to real-world physics, and is processing a huge amount of data.

"The main software runs about 200 times per second. So, every five milliseconds we give a new input to the motors," says research and development engineer Stanislaus Brosette.

Developers also have to measure patients, so that the exoskeleton is fine-tuned to work with individuals.

"This creates a physical model of the patients that we feed into some optimization algorithms that allow us to generate trajectories for the patient," explains Brosette. "So we had to translate the essence of what is walking into code."

A remote control allows the user or clinician to easily change between walking and modes for other movements. 

In the case of complete paraplegia, the exoskeleton provides all the power needed to walk. But for people with some mobility in their legs – like Ait – it can measure the forces exerted by their legs and assist with walking.

It can also be used for exercise, helping patients rebuild muscle mass.

"This exercise mode is used quite a lot for various motions and doing different sports in the physiological centers in which it's used. We've seen it being used for tennis, golfing, boxing, ping pong, basketball, many different sports enabled with Atalante," says Brosette.

The exoskeleton is now being used in 30 hospitals around France. And it has been approved in the U.S. for medical use.

Wandercraft is also working to make the technology more affordable. For patients like Ait, the possibilities are endless.

"In the past, I was a dancer and I want to dance again. It was my passion," she says. "And I hope that in the future I can dance again with Atalante."

RAZOR: The exoskeleton that helps people with disabilities walk again

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