Run Projects

Written"LearningNewGoals"

Report on the trial of Cyberdyne's HAL exoskeleton device, a potential walking aid for people with Polio by Christopher Tia, Round 3 Run Projects recipient. This report first featured in Polio Australia's December Newsletter.

chrisAs I sat filling in a post-trial evaluation form, I was somewhat bemused by one of the questions – "How long did it take you to travel to the venue?"

I wrote '10 hours'.

It had indeed been a long way to travel – from Sydney to Tokyo – just to experience something for such a short period of time. But it was worth it. A major bucket list moment if there ever was one. Trying Cyberdyne's HAL  exoskeleton suit was something I had wanted to do for a very long time, having spotted it many years before as it was being developed.

HAL (which stands for Hybrid Assisted Limb) is essentially a wearable device to support and enhance limb movement. It reads bioelectric signals from the brain through sensors attached to your limbs. These tell the device to move and react accordingly. The simplest non-technical way to explain how it works is perhaps to think of the comic hero 'Ironman'. Same idea. Science fiction now very much a reality.

A Bit About Me

I am a polio survivor, having contracted it when I was 3 years old – now 37 years old. Luckier than most, I had regained much of my movement but the disease had left both my legs fairly weak. I get around pretty easily and am very mobile by most people's standards. Like many polio survivors though, the dream to be able to independently walk again is somewhat of a constant. The later effects of polio has also started to be felt, so the prospect of a device that could assist to mitigate its impact was obviously something I wanted to at least try.

In test driving the device I also wanted to provide some perspective for fellow polio sufferers on what the experience is like. Moreover, as a tech-buff, I am perhaps in a better position than most to evaluate the technology on an objective basis. With these goals in mind, hopefully people will be able to decide for themselves whether to try it out after reading the rest of this report.

Use of the Technology as a Medical Device

HAL is certified as a medical device in the EU and has been used to treat different cerebral, nervous and muscle disorders. The company has some fairly interesting case studies, including of someone who recovered the ability to walk from a spinal cord injury by using it as a rehabilitation device. As I understand it, the company also has several ongoing clinical trials with medical research institutions in the US.

In terms of polio specifically, staff at the company said that they have treated polio survivors previously with good success. One example being of a patient who ended up drastically reducing their need for major walking aids, requiring only a simple walking cane after several months of rehabilitation.

The HAL Experience – what's it's like to be 'Ironman'

a man using robotic legs to walkThe best way to describe my experience using HAL is like suddenly being given the keys to a Lamborghini after having driven a sturdy Toyota Corolla for the last 20 years. You know there's a lot of power available but you are not quite sure if you'll be able to gain full control of it. After you put it on, the heaviness of the device (weighing in at about 12kg) quickly fades away as the sensors kick in to assist your movements. It can however be somewhat jerky at first as you learn to 'fire' and coordinate different parts of the device to take each step.

For long term polio survivors like myself (accustomed to compensating for the weakness in my legs, by relying on and using muscles the average person would not normally use in walking), it is also quite disorienting. The process to remember which muscle controls which movement, flexing it, then coordinating it to create a smooth stride required a lot of concentration. At the end of the one and half hour session I had actually worked up quite a sweat.

The lack of confidence in being able to fully control the device also adds to the sense that you still need support systems in place to balance and prevent falls – in my case, it is normally the security of my crutches. HAL staff are however very considerate of this and initiate you by trialling the device first with support hand rails and secondly through the use of a harness device to offset your body weight while you learn to walk. I found the latter particularly useful as it allowed me to solely focus on using the correct muscles as I learnt how to walk again, rather than having to constantly worry about whether I would fall.

I found the more I used it, the easier it was to control. Sensors also tracked every movement and muscle flexed, so you can easily figure out whether or not you are walking 'properly'. I found this helped a lot as old habits and reflexes take a while to overcome. After several laps with the device on, you get a pretty good sense of when and how assistance would be provided. This helped me increase the pace and length of my strides.

This is a video of the actual trial: bit.ly/1wl6y9B

Final Thoughts

Extremely impressed is probably an understatement of my perspective on how far this type of technology has come in just a short space of time. The obvious potential for assisting people across a broad spectrum of applications is breathtaking.

In terms of medical application, I think it is particularly useful within a rehabilitation context. As discussed above, there is very much a learning curve involved in using the device though. For long term sufferers of a medical condition, such as polio survivors, this is likely to be significant as quite a bit of time may be required to learn 'how to walk again'. HAL training staff mentioned a typical timeframe of 3-6 months to see a significant difference.

So ... is it worth trying for polio survivors? I would say yes, with a couple of caveats. Firstly, the device relies on reading your bioelectric signals from muscles so it essentially amplifies rather than substitutes. In other words, the more existing control you have over your muscles the better the device will work for you. Secondly, the device is currently used and certified for rehabilitation purposes only. So unfortunately you won't be able to take one home with you just at the moment.