Jean-Louis Constanza and a team of scientists and engineers at Wandercraft are using robotics to help walking impaired people regain mobility.
Sixteen-year-old Oscar Constanza has a genetic neurological condition that does not send enough signals to his legs. This means he has to use a wheelchair to get around. But his father, Jean-Louis Constanza, is a serial entrepreneur and one of the co-founders of a company that makes exoskeletons to help with walking impairment. Oscar turned to his dad one day and asked him, "Dad, you're a robotic engineer, why don't you make a robot that would allow us to walk?" And that's exactly what his father set out to do with his co-workers at Wandercraft—a robotics company—hoping to make products that have real-life impact.
The company was founded in 2012 by Nicolas Simon, who wanted to make biped robots walk like humans, since he had many close relatives with walking impairments. He was later joined by two roboticists, Alexandre Boulanger, and Matthieu Masselin, Jean-Louis, and a team of scientists and engineers to try and leverage state-of-the-art dynamic walk robotics to help walking impaired people regain mobility. As per their website, "Step by step, the WanderTeam integrated robotic dynamic walk algorithms into a lower limb exoskeleton capable of emulating human self-balanced walk." This is what allowed Oscar to take his first steps as well.
"Before, I needed someone to help me walk...this makes me feel independent," Oscar said in an interview with BBC. Oscar can activate the robot by giving it voice commands. "Robot, stand up," he says as the mechanical suit lifts the teen up and takes him walking forward. The walking frame is called the Atalante. It is a "self-balanced exoskeleton engineered to emulate human walk, through 12 actuated degrees of freedom and state-of-the-art dynamic walk algorithms." It is tailor-made to meet rehabilitation needs. "Ten years from now, there will be no, or far fewer, wheelchairs," Jean-Louis stated.
The only problem with the Atalante is its weight. The exoskeleton has been sold to dozens of hospitals in France, Luxembourg, and the United States, for about 150,000 euros ($176,000) apiece, according to Constanza. But it is still not available for private individuals to buy it and this is what the company is working on next. A personal skeleton needs to be much lighter, Wandercraft engineers have noted. There are many other companies across the world that are also manufacturing exoskeletons, competing to make them as light and usable as possible. While some are focused on helping disabled people walk, there are others being made to assist factory workers by making standing less tiring for them.
"The proof of concept device evolved into Atalante, our first commercial exoskeleton, that was CE marked in 2019," their website stated. "Atalante is used today in a rapidly growing number of European rehabilitation hospitals and helps stroke or SCI patients in gait re-learning. We are working hard on expanding outside Europe. Research exoskeletons have already been sold in the US and FDA submission is planned for 2021." Wandercraft's exoskeleton is also helping 33-year-old Kevin Piette who lost his ability to walk after a biking accident nearly 10 years ago.
The exoskeleton is helping him regain his independence to a certain extent. "In the end, it's quite similar: instead of having the information going from the brain to the legs, it goes from the remote controller to the legs," he explained. In a video, he can be seen strapping on the exoskeleton and control it with the help of a remote. He then walks to the kitchen to make his dinner and then walks to the living room.