Researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have developed a motorised brace that enables people suffering from muscular dystrophy to perform simple tasks with their hands and gain a greater sense of independence.
Professor of mechanical engineering Allen Hoffman and graduate students Michael Scarsella and Steven Toddes won WPI’s first Kalenian Award for entrepreneurship, worth $25,000, for the device.
The brace, called an arm orthosis, grew out of a series of WPI student projects conducted for the
Young people with muscular dystrophy retain dexterity in their hands, but, due to the wasting in their shoulders, upper arms, and trunk, are unable move their arms. The orthosis is a brace that fits over the arm. A joystick, held with the free hand, is used to operate motors that flex the arm at the elbow and rotate it to direct the hand to where it is needed. With the brace, the user can grip and move up to three pounds, making it possible, for example, to use a toothbrush or utensils for eating. A lap tray is used as a horizontal pivot point for the elbow, giving the user two degrees of freedom.
Hoffman said the technology has progressed to the point where it is ready for patenting and licensing. With the help of the Kalenian Award, he said he hopes the orthosis can be marketed to improve life for those with muscular dystrophy.
“This device could have quite an impact,” he said. “We’re still in the development stage, but we feel it’s a usable device. Right now, these people need assistance in all these activities. This device would allow them to do a number of activities independently.”
For his part, Rabideau says the device is one of the most remarkable improvements to wheelchair electronics that he has seen in the last 15 years. “What I really like about it,” he said, “is that it actually helps these kids use their own hand instead of a robotic-controlled arm. I think it keeps them connected. It’s more therapeutic, more gratifying.”