Delft students' robotic exoskeleton to help paralyzed people walk

Sjaan Quirijns in the MARC IV exoskeleton by TU Delft's Project MARCH
Sjaan Quirijns in the MARC IV exoskeleton by TU Delft's Project MARCHPhoto: TU Delt/Twitter

This week students from TU Delft's Project MARCH presented the fourth edition of their robotic exoskeleton that is intended to help people with paraplegia walk again. This new version, the MARCH IV, includes a new hip with which users can also step sideways - a first in this type of design, according to the students.

The team of 23 students works with Sjaan Quirijns, who has been wheelchair bound for 19 years and is the pilot of the MARCH suit. While wearing the suit, Quirijns can stand up, walk and even climb stairs. The new hip which enables her to step sideways is a great improvement, Quirijns said to Trouw. "I can now walk through a door much easier, because when I open it I can take a step aside to make room for the door", she said. Student Nikki Gerritzen added: "Every year the suit offers more freedom of movement, which means that Sjaan is now walking more naturally than last year."

The exoskeleton works via a computer that is mounted on the back. The operating system is in the handle of one of the crutches the pilot uses to maintain her balance. A menu screen allows her to choose between sitting, standing, walking and climbing. Pressure sensors are installed in the shoe soles that collect data about the user's balance. The students hope to use that data to eventually get the suit to regulate the user's balance on its own. 

The Delft team won the previous Cybathlon - an international tournament for people with disabilities in which they have to complete challenges with bionic prostheses - and will participate again in May. Quirijns is confident that her team will win again next year. "But that's not all it is about. You are also there to exchange knowledge. It's is nice if you win because of that one renewal, but just as nice if other teams applied the same renewal to their skeletons next year. You have the same goal in mind."

While the exoskeleton greatly increases her mobility, it will not yet replace the wheelchair, Quirijns thinks. "It is not yet practical enough", she said to the newspaper. Gerritzen added: "You can also see it as an aid in addition to your wheelchair."

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