The first kick of this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil will be performed by a paraplegic teenager, thanks to a robotic exoskeleton that translates brainwaves to actions.
The revolutionary device was developed by a team of scientists around the world called the Walk Again Project. It will debut at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians on June 12 this year, in front of almost 70,000 spectators and a global audience of billions.
That kick will be the crowning glory of over a decade of work for Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazil-born neuroengineer at Duke University. In 2003 he showed that monkeys could control robotic arms with their thoughts. Five years later in Kyoto, a team coordinated by robotics professor Gordon Cheng linked brainwaves with walking.
Now at the Technical Institute of Munich, Cheng has worked with Nicolelis and researchers in France, to build the exoskeleton they hope will consign wheelchairs to museums. Cheng tells Red Herring that the hardest part of the process was linking a myriad functions within one model.
“It’s a huge integration puzzle,” he says. “It’s very difficult to pinpoint what the hardest part is. A year ago we didn’t even know the brain signal would work.”
The exoskeleton is made of lightweight metals, and powered by hydraulics. A cap placed on the patient’s head picks up brain signals and relays them to a computer in the device’s backpack. The computer then decodes the signals and sends them to the legs. A battery, also in the backpack, allows for two hours of use. And airbags are fitted throughout for safety.
The most revolutionary part of the puzzle, however, may not be the movement of the legs, but that they can convey sensory information back to the patient. “Miguel and I knew that to do this seriously we’d need to enable the sensation of touch to the patient,” says Cheng.
“Beyond just visual feedback we’d need tactile feedback. And in Munich we came up with our own sensor network that allows you to sense as a human: forces, pre-touch, temperature, vibration, acceleration. That enabled the subject to feel. The sensation matching the movement is more important because then you can learn, you can adapt. The sensation has meaning.”
One paraplegic patient reportedly told Nicolelis that he felt as if he was walking on the beach, feeling his feet touch the sand.
The exoskeleton is currently being tested in Sao Paulo, where three people will eventually be selected from a group of nine, to walk out on the field in June. One of those three will then have the unique honor of kicking the first ball in the most watched event on Earth.
Nicolelis has described the project as “the moonshot of the 21st century”. Cheng agrees wholeheartedly: “If we succeed we open a whole new avenue. It’s the same as in 2008: nobody knew we could do it. But we did it, and that changes the whole game.”
Cheng adds that the project still requires more clinical trials, to ensure that the needs of all patients can be met. But beyond Brazil he is keen to add modalities to the exoskeleton, and build a suit capable of controlling all bodily movements. “We want to get lighter, faster,” he says. “This is more about societal contribution.
“Robotics is not a field that you see more than most disciplines,” adds Cheng. “Unifying the knowledge between different disciplines is one of the keys to success.”