Recently, we’ve seen science fiction become more like science fact, at least in the field of robotics. From giving us artificial muscles that make us stronger, to creating exoskeletons that can allow the paralyzed to walk, technology is constantly pushing the boundaries on how robotics can help us in our daily lives. Now, scientists at CMU, Harvard, the University of Southern California, MIT, and BioSensics have developed a robotic ankle that can assist those with injuries or illnesses that affect their lower legs.
The robotic ankle device is made with soft materials, unlike existing exoskeletons. What makes it unique is that its artificial muscles are actually a series of pneumatic tubes which are configured like real muscles. These tubes also act like real muscles, expanding and contracting as sensors above the knee tell them what to do, based on the motion of the person wearing the device. This creates a natural motion in the ankle, moving it in a way to create normal walking movement. Not only does the device provide support for walking, it also helps condition the real muscles underneath.
Because a soft device is harder to control than a standard exoskeleton, the technology of the robotic ankle is more advanced. The device’s sensors consist of rubber with small tubes of liquid metal inside. When motion occurs, the rubber — along with the metal — moves, creating an electrical resistance. The device’s software registers this change and acts appropriately, moving the ankle.
The robotic ankle was initially created to help those who might need extra assistance with walking: for example, someone with cerebral palsy or someone who has suffered from a stroke. However, the device could also help with rehabilitative therapy, perhaps those who have suffered from broken bones.