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Robotic exoskeletons boost quality of life

Robotic exoskeletons boost quality of life

Worldwide an estimated 185 million people use a wheelchair daily. A company based in New Zealand has developed innovative robotic technology that helps people with mobility impairment get back on their feet: the robotic exoskeleton from Rex Bionics. DC motors are key to ensuring smooth limb movement.

Around nine years ago, the two founders of Rex Bionics, Richard Little and Robert Irving, had the idea of developing a new kind of robotic legs. The reasons were obvious: Robert Irving had already been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and he knew he would end up in a wheelchair sooner or later. The two friends decided to use their know-how as engineers to develop a machine for people who would usually require a wheelchair to move about.

Exoskeletons have been developed to help people with mobility impairment to walk. This improves their strength and endurance. Rex gives these people the ability to stand, walk, get up, turn around and sit down on their own again. Even though the bionic legs cannot fully replace the wheelchair, the user is once again able to perform tasks standing up.

Today Rex Bionics has two manufacturing facilities where they produce two different Rex versions for different needs: ‘Rehab Rex’ is intended for use in rehabilitation centres; and ‘Rex’ has been developed for private users that can now perform tasks that are not possible when sitting in a wheelchair. According to Little, the largest challenge during the development process was the development of the very complex robotic platform, which also had to be very light. Furthermore one of the basic requirements was that the user, with his restricted physical abilities, has to perfectly harmonise with the externally mounted robotic legs and can fully safely stand and walk.

Rex is controlled with a joystick and control pad – other exoskeletons frequently use sensors. A large advantage of the joystick operation is that no movement or nerve functions are required to use the exoskeleton. Each exoskeleton has thousands of precision parts, including the limbs that are controlled by a network of 29 microcontrollers. The movements performed by Rex always feel smooth to the user. DC motors made by Maxon are responsible for ensuring no jerky movements occur. They control all movements of the limbs that move in the same way as a human leg. Ten RE 40 DC motors are used in each exoskeleton. The mechanically commutated DC motors are characterised by good torque behaviour, high dynamics, a very large speed range and a long service life.

Rex Bionics chose to use the high-quality Maxon motors for a good reason: Rex is a highly sensitive medical product and the safety of the users is of utmost importance. Currently Rex is being used by approximately 18 people in New Zealand, with new users joining this group every month.

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