Facilitated by advanced technology, new ideas and innovations have been able enhance the quality of life of individuals who require assistance in activities of daily living.

1. Patients with spinal cord injuries can learn to walk again

The Ekso GT, a brainchild of Ekso Bionics, combines metal struts, sensors and straps to form a prosthetic exoskeleton, and is built with software that analyses the level of support required by the patient. The bionic aid provides varying degrees of assistance, by detecting the volume of force generated as a patient lifts his foot off the ground, and aids the user in pushing forward.

“I’m always trying to use my mind to initiate my leg to go forward. I look down because I can’t feel my feet, but I can at least see where they’re going,” recounts a user of the robotics, adding that the technique allows him to gradually reconstruct the missing link between his brain and the legs.

Though the device requires assistance by a therapist, such advancements allow individuals with paralysis to undergo longer therapy sessions, and have made an impact in rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord injury.

2. Helping the visually-impaired navigate objects

As part of the National Robotics Initiative, a collaborative project aims to develop a hand-worn assistive device with computer vision that enables users to identify target objects within his environment. The device would then identify any misalignment and convey to the user, using natural human-device interfaces, the hand motions required to grasp the object.

The goal of this tool is to allow the visually-impaired to live and mobilise more independently – by allowing users to pre-locate and pre-sense objects without requiring assistance from others.

"The miniaturised system will contribute to the lives of visually impaired people by enabling them to identify and move objects, both for navigational purposes or for more simple things such as grasping a door handle or picking up a glass," said assistant professor Yantao Shen, lead researcher from the University of Nevada.

3. With brain implants, individuals with paralysis can feel again

With the implantation of four chips – each just 16mm2 – inside the sensory cortex of the brain, Nathan Copeland, who is paralysed below the neck can now directly control a robotic arm with his thoughts, and can sense contact with the robotic arm – which is attached to a structure in the laboratory at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and not to him.

Using brain imaging to locate the sensory cortex to place the electrodes, scientists monitor Copeland’s brain activity as the robotics fingers were stroked with cotton swabs and compared the findings to when he watched a video of someone else’s fingers being stroked.

This success would aid scientists immensely in the understanding of how our body works, and in the creation of more advanced prosthetics – such as Nathan’s – that integrates sensory and motion in gripping and manoeuvring objects.

4. A robotic arm that assists the disabled in feeding themselves

Obi is a dining robot that scoops food from one of four bowls and feeds the meal into your mouth – an invention by father-son duo Jon and Tom Dekar that aims to help the disabled regain ability to feed oneself.

“Every day, millions of people must be fed by caregivers, and they find the experience to be conspicuous and frustrating,” said Jon.

“Feeding oneself is a basic human need, and there was no good solution available. I became inspired to change that.”

The robot is not fully autonomous, and requires the individual to press a button and “teach” where to scoop by initially positioning the spoon to the mouth. However, the invention has already helped many regain their independence.

“It’s just not an enjoyable experience to have someone feed you, either for the person who’s eating or the person doing the feeding,” said year-long user of the Obi robot, David Hare.

“I can’t describe how much more fun meals are now, both for me and my wife, who has long helped me eat. Getting it was literally a life-changing experience.” MIMS

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