A robotic walking frame that can issue voice commands to the user is being developed alongside researchers at Northumbria University in the hope that it will help elderly people to recover more quickly after a fall or injury.
The electronic walker claims to act as a ‘virtual physiotherapist’, encouraging a patient to be as active as possible and assessing how exercises have been carried out.
It is fitted with technology that enables it to issue voice commands to its patient, persuading them to complete regular activities like going for a walk, gripping, standing and balancing, then assessing their performance.
It is also designed to be a ‘walking companion’; travelling with its patient as they walk prescribed distances, to monitor progress as well as offer physical support if it’s needed.
The development of the frame is being supported by a team from Northumbria University’s Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab, as part of a wider European project to design technology that can support our aging population.
It has been designed to be initially used in hospitals, where it would stay by the patient’s bed to encourage them to complete regular mobility and strength exercises – meaning they could potentially leave care earlier.
It can also assess how the patient has performed, and make adjustments. Assessment data gathered by the walker can then be fed back to the care team monitoring the patient’s progress. This provides detailed data of walking patterns or gait that would allow the care team to assess if the patient was at risk of future falls.
Professor Lynne Coventry, director of Northumbria’s PaCT Lab, said that mobility is a “critical factor” when it comes to the aging process.
“Reduced mobility can have a serious impact on health, and once an older person gets to a certain level of immobility, their decline can really accelerate.
“This technology aims to help maintain the mobility of older adults, by understanding what goes wrong if they have a fall, encouraging them to be physically active as much as possible, or helping to prevent falls in the first place.
“The frame will also help physiotherapists to understand the physical motion of older adults as they’re walking and establish if they have any problems. It can also help physiotherapists to administer tests and to set exercises for patients to do on daily basis to keep them on their feet.”
The walker is now being tested with a group of volunteers aged 65 or older; in labs and along corridors at Northumbria University, to try and mirror the hospital environment as much as possible.