Dr. Ryan Farris began working on exoskeleton technology as a student at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Intelligent Mechatronics. He is a co-inventor of the Indego exoskeleton and Engineering Manager leading the project with Parker’s Human Motion and Control unit.
How would you describe the Indego device to someone who is unfamiliar with motion and control technology?
The Indego device can most simply be described as a wearable robot designed to help people walk. The system is worn around the waist and strapped to the legs. Movement is created by four motors located near the hip and knee joints which are powered by a rechargeable battery. Microelectronics within the device are able to sense changes in the wearer’s posture, enabling the wearer to initiate walking simply by leaning forward. Similarly, the processes of standing up from a chair and sitting back down are also triggered by intuitive postural changes.
The theme of Indego (and the inspiration for its name) is Independence. Every aspect of the system was carefully designed with feedback from the end users and the clinicians. Indego is light enough to be easily managed by one person and small enough to be worn even while sitting in a chair with arms (or a wheelchair), but we didn’t stop there. Our team has fought through significant engineering challenges to add another level of functionality: modularity. Though strong enough to assist a 250lb adult from sitting to standing, Indego actually snaps apart in seconds into five modular sections: the hip, right and left upper leg segments, and right and left lower leg segments. This enables easy transportation of the device (think airline carry-on), and also ease of use in getting into and out of the device without assistance.
What progress has Parker recently made in efforts to further develop and test the Indego exoskeleton?
For the past year, the Indego engineering team has been designing the next generation of Indego devices behind closed doors. We will be unveiling the new system in the spring, but I can say a few things to give you an idea of what to expect. Our team has really spent the last year going back to the roots of this technology – to the clinicians and the users. We have spent considerable time working to understand their needs and incorporating their feedback into the redesign. The next generation Indego has been designed to provide a seamless user experience, from the initial device setup using the Indego wireless app through the independent donning and doffing process and even improvements to the postural control algorithms and gait pattern. And most importantly, our focus has been on safety and reliability as we prepare for commercial release of this technology.
How have individuals who have tested the device responded to the benefits it offers?
We have a great group of test pilots and it always seems that the hardest question for them to answer is, “What don’t you like about Indego?” The most common response is, “The only thing I don’t like is that I can’t have one yet!” Realistically, though, we have gone through many iterations and design changes to reach this point, and we have only gotten here by listening to the users feedback, making changes, and trying it again.
How do you describe your experience working on a project with the potential to create a significant impact on the lives of many people living with limited mobility?
As an engineer, when I first started working on the design of a powered “exoskeleton” I understood the need and the physiological importance of what we were trying to create, but I underestimated the emotional impact it would make in the lives of potential users. It is hard to appreciate the significance of this work until you see someone stand and walk for the first time after being told they would never walk again. Increasingly, though, the medical benefits of getting people up and walking again are becoming clear. Indego has the potential to improve the health of people with paralysis in meaningful ways, potentially adding years to their lives.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to work for not just a great company, but good people. It takes more than a good design to make an impact on people’s lives, and our team is fortunate to be enabled by visionary and supportive leadership at Parker.
What do you expect the future holds for human motion and control technology?
There have been many recent advances in technology which are driving revolutions in industries such as consumer electronics, automotive, and telecommunications. These same advances in technology are more than ready to be applied in the realm of human motion and control. Indego is a great example of leveraging advanced technology to address human impairments, but there are applications beyond this which could include injury prevention technology for factory workers or human amplification technology for athletes or soldiers. In a simplistic way, the technology we now have to work with gives us more information (better sensors and communication capabilities), a greater ability to understand that information and make decisions (increased computing power in smaller footprints), and an increased ability to respond to that information (better power sources and actuators).
Dr. Ryan Farris, Engineering Manager leading the Indego project with Parker’s Human Motion and Control unit.
Image Source: Dr. Farris and Michael GoreTop Image supplied by Popular Mechanics from the Breakthrough Award Presentation.