SoloWalk—developed and designed by Carleton graduates—helps the injured get back on their feet
As young men, the Carleton graduates who launched Ottawa-based robotics company GaitTronics and design consultancy The Federal dreamed of working on rocket ships and race cars. Instead, they’ve teamed up to develop a much slower product—a technology that could revolutionize the way health-care workers complete the tricky but vital task of getting frail or elderly patients up and moving.
SoloWalk, the flagship creation from GaitTronics, a spinoff from Professor Mojtaba Ahmadi’s Advanced Biomechatronics and Locomotion Laboratory, is essentially a robot that can help somebody recovering from hip-replacement surgery—and a wide range of other medical procedures and conditions—stand and walk.
Controlled by a caregiver using a joystick-like device, the machine rolls toward the patient, who is then secured to its “arms” with a harness. The machine gently raises the patient up from a bed or wheelchair, and guided by programmable sensors, its powered base follows their movement, with a responsive mechanism to catch people if they stumble. Once the patient is strapped in, he or she can use the joystick to control the movements independently.
The potential benefits are huge, says GaitTronics CEO and co-founder Richard Beranek, BEng/09. Walking early and daily after an operation or injury will minimize the complications that can arise from bed rest; it’s good for circulation, muscle strength, confidence and more. But resource-challenged hospitals can’t always make available the two or more caregivers required to mobilize a patient safely. And when that heavy man with a new hip is shuffling down the corridor, nurses risk serious back problems if he falls while they are supporting him. “If you walk 10 or 15 minutes a day,” says Beranek, “the impact can be lifesaving.”
A couple of years into an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, Beranek switched to robotics and began working on rehabilitation devices in Ahmadi’s lab. There, Beranek met Aliasgar Morbi, BEng/07, MASC/09, PhD/14, the key inventor behind SoloWalk’s patient-driven base and fall-prevention system. They landed an NSERC grant to build a prototype, launched GaitTronics in 2012 and are developing a second-generation product. And while they have experienced the technology hurdles and dark moments common to any start-up, the company has already sold its only functioning unit to CP-NET, an Ontario network of cerebral palsy agencies and scientists, who purchased it to conduct rehab research.
That sale might not have happened so quickly without input from Ian Murchison, BID/10, and Rohan Thakar, BID/12. Both were working for BlackBerry in Waterloo, Ont., and saw the tide turning at the tech giant, so they moved back to Ottawa in 2012 and started The Federal, which operates in tandem with their inventive product-design firm Ware House (think wooden knives and rubber bike racks). When GaitTronics started searching for an industrial design partner to make SoloWalk user-friendlier, The Federal was a natural fit.
Working within restrictive parameters—only medical-grade materials could be used for the exterior, for instance—Murchison and Thakar made the prototype as small as possible and further streamlined the second iteration. Now, with Health Canada approval and feedback from doctors, nurses and patients informing the design process, they’re hoping to help GaitTronics complete a third-gen production model by mid-2015. The group is targeting a sale price of $50,000.
“It’s a progression,” says Murchison, whose heart was set on race cars before he dove into industrial design. “This is still not the final state of the device.”