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Robotic Cane Helps Individuals with Impaired Mobility

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A team of researchers at Columbia Engineering led by Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia Engineering, have turned a simple cane into a robotic device with light-touch assistance. The new device, called CANINE, can be used to assist elderly people and those with impaired mobility. The team of researchers added electronics and computation technology to the classic cane. The study has been published in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. 

The team has shown how an autonomous robot can “walk” with the human and provides light-touch support. It’s similar to how a person, whenever attempting to gain there balance, touches a person next to them for support. 

Sunil Agrawal spoke about the new technology used to help assist those with mobility problems. He is also a member of Columbia University’s Data Science Institute. 

“Often, elderly people benefit from light hand-holding for support,” he said. “We have developed a robotic cane attached to a mobile robot that automatically tracks a walking person and moves alongside. The subjects walk on a mat instrumented with sensors while the mat records step length and walking rhythm, essentially the space and time parameters of walking, so that we can analyze a person’s gait and the effects of light touch on it.” 

The robotic cane, or CANINE, is a type of mobile assistant. It is able to help a person’s proprioception, which is self-awareness during various activities such as walking. This will help the stability and balance of the individual. 

Joel Stein, a Simon Brauch Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and co-author of the study, spoke about the new technology. Stein is also chair of the Department of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. 

“This is a novel approach to providing assistance and feedback for individuals as they navigate their environment,” Stein said. “This strategy has potential applications for a variety of conditions, especially individuals with gait disorders.” 

The team tested the new CANINE device with 12 healthy young people. They were given virtual reality glasses that were used to create a visual environment, an environment that shakes the user side-to-side and forward-backing. This causes them to become unbalanced. 

After being shaken around, the individuals walked 10 laps on the instrument mat. They were without the CANINE device at first, but they used it the second time. Their walking was tested with the visual perturbations, and the team of researchers found that the light-touch support of the CANINE device helped the individuals narrow their strides. Narrower strides meant a decrease in the base of support. This resulted in a smaller oscillation of the center of mass and an increase in stability when the individuals were walking. 

“The next phase in our research will be to test this device on elderly individuals and those with balance and gait deficits to study how the robotic cane can improve their gait,” said Agrawal. “In addition, we will conduct new experiments with healthy individuals, where we will perturb their head-neck motion in addition to their vision to simulate vestibular deficits in people.” 

Agrawal is also the director of Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory. 

Mobility impairment is a problem for 4% of people aged 18 to 48, but it is a much bigger problem for older individuals. 35% of people between the ages of 75 and 80 years suffer from mobility impairment. This causes a lack of independence as well as a lower quality of life. 

As the population continues to age and there is a higher amount of older people compared to younger, this problem will increase. 

“We will need other avenues of support for an aging population.” Agrawal said. “This is one technology that has the potential to fill the gap in care fairly inexpensively.”


Alex McFarland is an AI journalist and writer exploring the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has collaborated with numerous AI startups and publications worldwide.