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Conor Walsh

Walking with robots

Published in 2016clockTime to read: 50s
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By marrying textile science with robotics, Conor Walsh, an Irish biomedical engineer, and a team of experts at the Harvard Biodesign Lab are revolutionizing how patients worldwide recover from traumas such as stroke and learn to walk again.

locationBoston, United States

Fifteen million people have strokes every year. Five million learn to walk again but the process can be slow, painful and costly. Conor Walsh is determined to change that. To accelerate and ease rehabilitation, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and his team of engineers, IT experts, apparel designers, clinicians and neuroscientists at Harvard University are making robots you can wear.

It’s not a replacement for normal rehabilitation therapy. It’s a new tool for extending and accelerating it.

Light, textile, elastic and mechanized, the exosuit teaches damaged nerves, muscles, tendons and joints to function again. Tiny, powerful motors, pulleys, cables, movement sensors and intelligent software help wearers walk by making gentle corrections to movement and encouraging natural actions. Along with stroke victims, it has the potential to aid others with impaired mobility, including those with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and the elderly.

Walsh had previous experience with rigid exoskeletons as a developer and test subject but when he arrived at Harvard, he was inspired by colleagues with expertise in soft materials: “I saw that if you had a softer, lighter suit that accentuated the right actions, was comfy to wear and didn’t encumber you, it could have huge biomedical applications.”

Through partnerships with Harvard’s Wyss Institute and the biomedical company ReWalk, the soft exosuit is on the path to commercialization, and is expected to be ready in three years.

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