Before last week, a 29-year-old Brazilian man named Juliano Pinto could only dream of performing the ceremonial first kick in front of thousands of people at the opening ceremonies of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Even being on his feet in the stands cheering on the Brazilian national team must have seemed impossible. That’s because Pinto is a paraplegic, completely paralyzed from the waist down.
Pinto made the kick with the help of a highly advanced robotic exoskeleton that he controlled with just his thoughts.
Known as the BRA-Santos Dumont, named after “Brazil” and Brazilian aviation pioneer Albert Santos-Dumont, the robotic suit is a culmination of years of research from an international team of engineers and scientists from a consortium called the Walk Again Project.
The group is headed by Gordon Cheng, a robotics expert from Technical University in Munich, and Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian scientist at Duke University in North Carolina who is renowned for his work in successfully connecting the brains of monkeys and rats directly to computers.
The BRA-Santos Dumont, which is built from lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics, works by reading brain waves using a special cap fitted with sensors.
A computer worn in a backpack decodes the signals and commands the pair of hydraulic legs to move.
The suit also has artificial skin in the soles of its “feet” that contains pressure, temperature, and speed sensors, and creates a kind of tactile stimulation when walking with the exoskeleton. It sends a vibration to the arm when the “foot” touches the ground.
A battery in the backpack allows for about two hours of use.
The BRA-Santos Dumont is very much in its early stages. Researchers were at one point concerned that the signals from the thousands of mobile phones could interfere with the suit.
Airbags were fitted onto the suit as an extra safety precaution, just in case the gyroscopic sensors failed and caused the suit to tip over.
The suit required a significant amount of practice to work properly. Moreover, the actual kick seemed to be more of a light tap than a powerful punt.
Those who were hoping that the BRA-Santos Dumont would give them the futbol talents of Cristiano Ronaldo were probably disappointed. But the opening kick of soccer’s greatest international competition can also be seen as the kickoff of a new type of assistive mobility technology.
It is the hope that this first successful public demonstration could lead to one day making wheelchairs a relic of the past.
While the Bra-Santos Dumont had the distinction of debuting in front of an international audience, it isn’t the only robotic exoskeleton helping paralyzed people move. The ReWalk robotic exoskeleton has been around since 2011 and claims to be the most widely used, most studied and first available for personal ownership. It even made a cameo appearance on the TV show “Glee”a few years ago.
The Ekso from Ekso Bionics, a gait training exoskeleton, is another bionic suit that has garnered a lot of attention because of the World Cup.
While the Ekso isn’t controlled by brainwaves (neither is the ReWalk), it has a number of features that assist the user in not just movement, but actual rehabilitation. It’s also designed to be strapped over clothing, making it easier for busy therapists to transition between patients.
Another exoskeleton developed by Vanderbilt University, the Indego, weighs in at only 27 pounds and can be put on and taken off by the users themselves without any assistance. The Indego incorporates functional electrical stimulation, or FES. FES applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles, causing them to contract and relax.
For those who are partially paralyzed, FES can improve leg strength. Even for complete paraplegics, FES can improve circulation, change bone density and reduce muscle atrophy.
Researchers are also developing exoskeletons to give patients with arm paralysis increased freedom. Last year’s Intel Cornell Cup winner was a team from the University of Pennsylvania that developed TitanArm, an upper body exoskeleton that senses the user’s muscle activity to control the robotic arms.
Still others are working to make technologically advanced prosthetics available to patients in developing nations.
Not Impossible Labs’ Project Daniel uses 3D printers to make prosthetic arms for children in war-torn Suuth Sudan.
SwissLeg provides artificial limbs to amputees in Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
As breakthroughs in robotic technology and our understanding of neural signals continue to increase, we’ll hopefully see even lighter and less intimidating looking exoskeletons that move and respond as effortlessly as our arms and legs.
This small kick should give paraplegics a renewed sense of optimism that they may one day be able to run down the field, kick a ball, and score a goal.
Images courtesy of Reddit and Professor Miguel Nicolelis’ Official Facebook Page.
Ever since he had an atresia surgically repaired at age five, Scott has been fascinated with the field of medical science. Combining his love of consumer electronics and technology with medicine, he studied biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California and graduated in 2009. By day, Scott is a Technical Services Engineer at St. Jude Medical, but moonlights as a senior editor at Medgadget, a leading medical technology and innovation blog. Scott is always searching for the next big thing in medical technology and digital health and looks forward to sharing these life-transforming innovations with iQ by Intel’s audience.