After a fund-raising campaign which generated 15 million euros, a start-up by the name of Wandercraft is hoping to help physically handicapped people to get about upright using "robot walkers".
Helping paraplegics to walk using exoskeletons – that is the aim of a start-up by the name of Wandercraft, founded by Nicolas Simon, Alexandre Boulanger and Matthieu Masselin, who are all graduates of the French Ecole Polytechnique, with Jean-Louis Constanza brought in to head the team in 2013. The project has already raised almost 15 million euros from companies Bbifrance, XAnge, Idinvest and Family Office Cemag, with Xavier Niel – founder of Free – and Marc Simoncini – the man behind Sensee and Meetic – having already come on board previously.
A high-level team for an ambitious project
"The funds that we have just raised will enable us to obtain medical certification for our exoskeletons and to construct eight of them," Constanza said to French daily Le Figaro. "You have three PhDs, a gold medal in maths from Vietnam, a silver medal from France… That’s a good indication of who we are… There are very few start-ups that can boast a talent pool like ours," he adds, proud of his team of 35 young highly-qualified mathematicians who are specialised in a number of fields, particularly algorithmics. Talent is certainly what is required to design robots capable of walking naturally – something that represents a considerable challenge in terms of technology.
Six motors in each leg
The exoskeletons designed by Wandercraft will initially be for paraplegic patients as part of the care that they receive from their medical institution. They will feature two fully articulated legs, with each articulation having a motor (making six in all). They are accurately measured to the nearest millimetre, and will also be fitted with protective padding on the inside so that they fit perfectly to the patient and avoid scarring or sores.
"Remaining seated causes a number of dysfunctions in the body," Constanza explains, "which is why it is crucial to help handicapped people to walk." The project, which is both innovative and caring therefore, also brings with it another plus point, namely that is frees up the handicapped person’s hand as they no longer need to use crutches, thus affording them greater independence. Despite initial reactions being highly sceptical, the feasibility of the project now seems to be accepted. The only question which remains is when the exoskeletons will be fully functional.
Wheelchairs soon to be replaced by robots?
The ultimate aim of Constanza and his team would be to eventually replace wheelchairs by individual exoskeletons, which would be sold "at the same price as a top-of-the-range wheelchair".
For the exoskeletons to be usable on a daily basis, they will first need the mechanics of the structures to be reduced in size, the batteries made lighter, and of course there is the problem of getting up and down kerbs and staircases. The latter problem requires extra sensors to detect and overcome obstacles. With these various technical issues still to be ironed out, Wandercraft has yet to commit to an availability date for the first exoskeletons.
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