A team of engineers led by Professor Sunil Agrawal from Columbia University have designed a robotic cane that helps those with limited or impaired ability to walk, acting as the arm of a friend or loved one to hold on to when needed. The use of canes for increased stability has been around for millennia, but only now in the 21st century has a simple tool become a ‘light touch’ autonomous robot capable of rendering assistance at a moment’s notice.
“We have developed a robotic cane attached to a mobile robot that automatically tracks a walking person and moves alongside. The subjects walk on a mat instrumented with sensors while the mat records step length and walking rhythm, essentially the space and time parameters of walking, so that we can analyze a person’s gait and the effects of light touch on it.”
The cane, called CANNIE, was made out from an ordinary cane using a mobile robotic base equipped with an F/T sensor positioned on top of the rod to sense touch and LIDAR on the mobilized base to detect objects and navigational purposes. The engineers tested CANNIE employing 12 healthy young individuals outfitted with a VR headset, which created an environment that shook around them (forward/backward/up/down) to make them unbalanced as they walked.
Each test subject walked 10 laps on the sensor-laden mat, each with and without the robotic cane in conditions with visual perturbations (a cause of anxiety or uneasiness). The idea was to see how they could navigate a path that threw them off balance and focus on their gait while doing so. The engineers found that by using CANNIE, their strides were narrower and gained increased stability while using the robotic cane. The engineers state they will test the cane on the elderly and those that have trouble walking to see how CANNIE can improve their gate.