Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pulling My Leg, Robotically

For over four years bipedal robots have had the ability to run (defined as movement where both feet are off the ground at some point). High tech walking robots have been developed by Sony (the QRIO) and Honda (Asimo).

These developments are of more than academic interest to me because just over two years ago I lost the ability to move. On December 28, 2005, I went over a downhill ski jump, landed on my neck, and shattered a vertebra and damaged my spinal cord. After a five-hour surgery and another three months of inpatient physical therapy I slowly regained my physical function. Now I can walk slowly for short distances using a cane.

Spinal Cord Injury is more complicated than I would have imagined. My accident resulted in hemiplegia, which means paralysis of one side of the body. Doctors also call people like me "walking quads". But even paralysis has a lot more subtlety than you might expect. Some of my nerves are indeed disconnected, causing those muscles to be unresponsive and atrophy. Another result, however, is that sometimes the muscles get into a feedback loop causing an uncontrollable sputter or spasm. Still other muscles are overactive, firing all the time. This results in an inability to move the affected limb in the opposite direction.

This last is the main factor inhibiting me from walking better. My calf and hamstring are perpetually flexed, so lifting my foot and bending at the knee are very limited. In addition, for reasons I don't really understand, my balance is very poor.

If robots can be made that walk and even run and climb stairs bipedally, couldn't this technology be applied to a medical condition like mine? I can envision a cast-like legging containing robotics for helping to propel the leg forward and keeping balance. There would be some adaptation necessary to take the mechanics of a solid robot and transform them into a hollow shell. I suppose keeping the balance of a six-foot, 150-pound person would be considerably more difficult than for little Asimo, but the mechanics wouldn't have to do the job alone. The person still has some sense of balance to contribute.

Even if such uses are being developed, one major problem remains: medical technology is ridiculously priced. As an example, I recently found geared manual wheelchair wheels available online. They allow downshifting like a bicycle to facilitate climbing hills. This kind of wheel would be great for someone like me with limited upper-body strength. I checked the order form and discovered that a pair cost $5,000!

$5,000 "Magic Wheels"

Part of the problem is surely the proprietary nature of this kind of development. If it is patented technology, the manufacturers basically have a monopoly to charge whatever they want. A bigger issue, I think, is our whole health care insurance system. It is standard practice for doctors to charge more when someone has insurance than if they don't. Likewise, products that are typically paid for by insurance seem to have super inflated prices. For those of us with no or limited insurance it makes these items out of reach. I hope that some day in my lifetime our country puts an emphasis on quality of life and helping people whose lives can be greatly enhanced by some of these great developments.

1 comment:

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