A soft, wearable device that mimics the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the lower leg could aid in the rehabilitation of patients with ankle-foot disorders such as drop foot, said Yong-Lae Park, an assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.
Park said additional work will be necessary to improve the wearability of the device. This includes artificial muscles that are less bulky than the commercially produced PAMs used in this project. Park said a subsequent project, which will be presented at an upcoming technical conference, used flat, strap-like actuators instead of the cylindrical PAMs.
Among the innovations in the device are sensors made of a touch-sensitive artificial skin, thin rubber sheets that contain long microchannels filled with a liquid metal alloy. When these rubber sheets are stretched or pressed, the shapes of the microchannels change, which in turn causes changes in the electrical resistance of the alloy. These sensors were positioned on the top and at the side of the ankle.
Active, powered devices can improve function and also help re-educate the neuromuscular system, Park said. "But the limitation of a traditional exoskeleton is that it limits the natural degrees of freedom of the body," he added. The ankle is naturally capable of a complicated three-dimensional motion, but most rigid exoskeletons allow only a single pivot point.
The soft orthotic device, by contrast, enabled the researchers to mimic the biological structure of the lower leg. The device's artificial tendons were attached to four PAMs, which correspond with three muscles in the foreleg and one in the back that control ankle motion. The prototype was capable of generating an ankle range of sagittal motion of 27 degrees - sufficient for a normal walking gait.