Design of an Ankle Exoskeleton Employing Dual Action Plantarflexion Assistance and Gait Progression Detection

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Virginia Tech


Since the 1960s, research into the medical applications of wearable robots has been fueled by a growing need for assistive technologies that can help individuals impacted by musculoskeletal disorders such as sarcopenia independently manage common activities of daily living while maintaining their natural physical capacities. While contemporary research has demonstrated promising developments, the usefulness of exoskeletons in everyday settings remains limited due to design factors that include the limited practicality of existing battery technologies, the need for actuators exhibiting a high output torque-to-weight ratio, a need for modular designs that are minimally disruptive to wearers, and the need for control systems that can actively work in sync with a user. To explore potential solutions to some of these limiting factors, a novel ankle exoskeleton prototype supporting ankle plantarflexion during gait was developed under a design approach that seeks to optimize actuator performance. The actuation system featured in this prototype consists of a custom dual-action linear actuator that can provide mechanical assistance to both ankles via a single BLDC motor and an underlying Bowden cable system. The metric ball screw and BLDC motor implemented in the linear actuator were selectively chosen to minimize the motor torque and current required to assist wearers impacted by a degree of muscle weakness under an assistance-as-needed design paradigm. The prototype additionally features an array of force sensing resistors for tracking gait progression and exploring potential user-based control strategies for synchronizing the exoskeleton actuator with a wearer's gait. Performance analysis for this prototype was conducted with the goal of quantifying the exoskeleton's force output, actuator settling time, and the control system's ability to track gait and identify key events in the gait cycle. The preliminary findings of this experimental analysis support the viability of the actuator's dual-action concept and gait progression tracking system as a starting ground for future developments that build on a similar design optimization approach.



Ankle Exoskeleton, Gait Analysis, Mechatronic Design, Wearable Robots