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Robotic Exoskeleton: A Helping Hand
March 3, 2014   
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Inventor Micha≥ Mikulski, who has built a robotic device that helps people with muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis to move their limbs, talks to Karolina Olszewska.

You’re a postgraduate robotics student at the Silesian University of Technology in the southern city of Gliwice. You have set up a special start-up company at that university to produce the innovative robotic device you invented. Some say your invention, known as the exoskeleton, may revolutionize the Polish market for equipment used in medical rehabilitation. Your exoskeletons are successful internationally. How do they work?

Exoskeletons are robots for the rehabilitation of patients whose limbs have lost some or all of their functions. Exoskeletons aid the movement of the limbs, without burdening the spine. They are needed when someone suffers an injury or if a disabled person cannot make the necessary movements during a physiotherapy session on their own. Depending on the degree of damage to the musculoskeletal system, the robot can be controlled by the patient, the doctor or physiotherapist. The exoskeleton also detects the electrical activity of muscles. After mounting it on the patient’s legs, electrodes are attached to the weakened muscles.

It all started with a robot designed for the rehabilitation of patients’ hands...

And with my master’s thesis at the Silesian University of Technology, in which I dealt with building an upper limb “skeleton” controlled by an electromyogram—which means based on detecting the electrical activity of muscles. In 2009, the first prototypes were created, followed by a pilot version of the right hand two years later—a robot designed for people with muscular dystrophy. That project was purely academic in nature, but the next ones were developed with a view to finding a practical application for the design.


Where did the money come from?

When I was working on the next design, namely a lower limb exoskeleton (as part of my doctoral dissertation), the Foundation for Polish Science awarded a grant of zl.171,500 for this purpose. With this money, a prototype of the exoskeleton of the right leg with force sensors was developed. The robot is used for the rehabilitation of orthopedic and neurological patients. Ultimately, it will also be used to help people with disabilities. In addition, I got about zl.30,000 for the control systems alone, under the DoktoRIS program of the Silesia Province Chairman’s Office and the University of Silesia.

The exoskeleton of the arm has become a technology mature enough to be tested for use by people with disabilities.

Your EgzoTech company, though quite young, has been named one of the best start-ups in the world. What’s your recipe for success?

The company was founded in March last year. We secured an outside investor: the Jagiellonian Center of Innovation provided us with 200,000 euros for development under Measure 3.1. of the European Union’s Innovative Economy Operational Program. As a result, the EgzoEMG upper limb exoskeleton hit the market. EgzoTech has been named one of the five best start-ups in Poland by Google for Entrepreneurs, the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Consulate in Cracow. We showcased our EgzoEMG robot in Chicago, where we were also named as one of the eight best start-ups in the world.

Our active rehabilitation technology using electromyography and the upper limb exoskeleton won us gold medals in Brussels and Moscow. Earlier, in Warsaw, the “hand” earned me the title of Academic Master of Innovation.

You have also created a special computer game for patients that you presented in the United States…

In Chicago, we organized a competition-cum-computer game in which patients had the impression of piloting an airship while exercising. Two seven-year-old girls won the largest number of points. It’s worth keeping in mind that rehabilitation is a long, painful and simply boring process. Adults are not too patient, and children even less so.

If, during an exercise, when someone raises a limb, a virtual airship collects stars in a computer game, then he or she does not focus on the pain or symptoms, but on playing the game.
Exoskeletons work with able-bodied patients; now we are adapting them to the needs of people with disabilities. This technology is still at the development stage. The dimensions of the propulsion systems and the skeleton are for the time being adapted to the needs of adults. But ultimately children will also use them.

What is your firm working on at the moment?

We are finalizing work on the EgzoEMG robot, which is in the process of certification. The hardware and software have been tested with patients, especially those with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This is a genetic disorder that causes progressive and irreversible muscle atrophy. At an advanced stage of this disorder, patients are unable to move their arms or legs. With our robot, they do that on their own, which is quite a remarkable result and a great way to rehabilitate patients. Patients volunteer to be our “pilots”; they test the robot in laboratory conditions. We also work with doctors, physiotherapists who help us develop the technology in such a way so as to make it the most useful for them and as easy as possible to use.

What is the market potential of your invention?

Our device is targeted at physiotherapy centers and hospitals with rehabilitation, orthopedic, neurological and trauma wards. We are currently pursuing a partnership program. We have a very good deal for our first customers, partners from Poland, who want to modernize the physiotherapy sector with us. The robot will appear on the market in May this year. The market is huge if we realize that some 7.6 million physiotherapy sessions involving rehabilitation through movement are carried out in Poland every year.

Is the competition breathing down your neck?

Not really. Our robot will be the only robot of its kind available worldwide that has an EMG mode, or electromyography offering a chance of active rehabilitation using electrical activity in the muscles of patients, even very weak ones. For example, this was the case with Jakub, who for the first time in five years moved his hands using our robot. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to undergo rehabilitation.
The robot is designed specifically for physiotherapists. The touchscreen software attached to it is very easy to use on a tablet. As a result, it is among the most user-friendly devices on the market.

We decided that the robot should cost half the price of any other competitive device on the market. If a physiotherapy center buys four such robots, one physiotherapist will be able to work with four patients at the same time. As a result, the price will be lower, and the robots will be able to pay for themselves by helping more patients. We will not be a burden on the Health Ministry budget. And patients will be paying less for their rehabilitation treatment.

Cheaper, better, and the most innovative in the world… How is that possible?

All our equipment is simple, easy to operate and user-friendly. The magnitude of work involved in the development of all this hardware and software is another matter. Our robots are very advanced technologically. And there is no other technology on the global market at the moment that allows for active rehabilitation with EMG when it comes to the integration of the robot with the human being. Before we finalized the product, we visited various centers in Poland. We talked to physiotherapists and managers and asked what they needed, and what problems they encountered. They said that the currently available devices take too long to start up or are difficult to operate. Better ones cost from zl.250,000 to as much as zl.1 million. That’s a lot, and it’s difficult to say when the expenses will be recouped, if at all. And it’s also difficult to say if patients will exercise with the new robot, and if therapists will use it. That’s why the EgzoEMG will cost less than zl.100,000 under the partnership program. And the risk for the rehabilitation center will be small.

The robot will combine the possibility of rehabilitating the arms and legs…

No rehabilitation center will want to buy a robot only for the upper limbs, because there is a risk involved in that. That’s why we’ve designed replaceable parts: attached to the elbow or the knee joint, hip, wrist, shoulder or ankle. Our robot moves around on wheels. It has a column for moving up and down. And an attractive price tag. And in terms of quality it trumps a lot of other robots. It is comparable with the best devices of this kind on the market, in terms of rehabilitation of a single joint. The device is versatile and enables rehabilitation centers to admit more patients.

And what about patent protection?

We have two Polish patent applications and have expanded our patents worldwide under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) procedure. This protection method is difficult to circumvent. We will be the only company that sells robots of this class.


Factfile

Micha≥ Mikulski has developed his robotic device with financial support from the National Center for Research and Development, which provided zl.2.14 million in funds for the development of the potential of graduate and doctoral students at the Silesian University of Technology—under the European Union’s Human Capital Operational Program.
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