IN PICTURES | Exoskeletons hope to be able to walk when their legs can’t take any more weight

In a Parisian industrial workshop, technicians are assembling a kind of robot a human could slip into: the Atalante exoskeleton, which can make those whose legs can no longer support walk.

French start-up Wandercraft (about forty employees) is one of the most promising global companies in this market for walking exoskeletons intended for people with paralyzed lower limbs.

“It’s a walking robot that wraps itself around your legs and walks for you or lets you walk if you have some remaining strength,” explains Jean-Louis Constanza, co-founder of Wandercraft.




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The robot can be controlled by a joystick, by the movements of the bust, even by the movements of the head if its pilot is tetraplegic.

At the moment, walking exoskeletons have found a market in the rehabilitation departments of hospitals, where patients use these still cumbersome devices to rehabilitate themselves while walking or simply to regain, albeit briefly, standing with all its body and mind benefits .




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The market is tight, but Wandercraft has several competitors around the world, such as the American Ekso Bionics, the Japanese Cyberdyne or the prototypes made by research laboratories.

In 2020 in Switzerland, at the Cybathlon competition between walking exoskeletons, the South Korean exoskeletons from the laboratory Angel Robotics and the Swiss start-up Twiice saw the triumph, measured by their ability to complete a given course as quickly as possible.

However, unlike its competitors, the Atalante balances itself and does not require its pilot to use crutches to stabilize himself.

“He is able to take small, very fast steps that save him from falling,” explains Jean-Louis Constanza, underlining the complexity of the mathematical and physical problems that had to be solved to achieve this feat.




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This ability to balance without a crutch is particularly useful for patients “who have severe spinal cord injuries and are therefore unable to use walking sticks,” confirms Doctor Jacques Kerdraon of the Kerpape Rehabilitation Center (Morbihan), who bought an Atalanta.

In total, Wandercraft has sold more than twenty of these devices, the price of which can be estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000 euros.

But the ultimate goal is to one day launch a device that’s lighter than the big Atalante machine, an exoskeleton so manageable that the patient can don it alone and wear it at home or even on the street can move.

A technologically ambitious goal that Jean Michenaud, biomechanical engineer at Inria (the research institute for digital sciences and technologies) has a little doubts about.

Such a machine “is very bulky, needs batteries” and “must be able to do very complicated movements that are not cyclic, like getting into a car or climbing stairs,” the researcher estimates.

“I think it’s possible, but we’re probably still a long way from it,” says Tobias Bützer, a researcher at the ETH Laboratory in Zurich (Switzerland), which organizes the Cybathlon.




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“One of the main problems is developing an exoskeleton that fits many people, not just one pilot,” he explains. “It has to be light, fast, stable…”

For his part, Jacques Kerdraon, the doctor at the rehabilitation center, is more optimistic. “We’re in the process of creating a feasibility study” for an exoskeleton that will allow autonomous movement in an apartment, he states.

“There are still steps to validate acceptance” by patients, “long-term use”, “the affected population”…

In any case, “there would be a great advantage to be able to verticalize spinal cord injuries at home for a longer period of time,” he believes.

The next edition of the Cybathlon in 2024 will include one event – out of ten – of walking without crutches to test the progression of all exoskeletons towards self-balancing.

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