TORONTO : A Delhi child with cerebral palsy inspired the development of the first commercial exoskeleton for children with disabilities by two Indo-Canadian engineers.
Manmeet Maggu and Rahul Udasi, both 26, who first met as students of mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, have set up the start-up Trexo Robotics to roll out the exoskeleton.
Maggu, born in Chandigarh, was influenced by the film Iron Man, and robotics was “a natural pull”. Initially, he looked at building an upper body exoskeleton as a side project during his years as an undergraduate.
However, his project turned personal after his Delhi-based brother Upinder’s son Praneit was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disease that greatly impairs motor function.
“I found out my nephew has cerebral palsy and he might never be able to walk. That really pushed us to consider our purpose as mechatronics engineers. And it became the motivation for us to build something for my nephew,” Maggu told Hindustan Times.
Maggu and Udasi bonded and roomed together and subsequently moved to Toronto, where Maggu completed an MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management while Udasi finished a Master’s in robotics.
Now, with an office located in a suburb of Toronto, they will formally release the device, called ReX, this quarter.
The two decided to build the exoskeleton around a walker that the child used in India after spending last summer at Upinder’s house in Delhi .
“Last year we watched my nephew taking his first steps using our device. It was an incredibly proud moment. It was proof of concept that showed us this can work,” Maggu said.
“Our current version is the final version that children will be able to use, while there are some features we want to add in the future,” Udasi said.
The exoskeleton and the metal and plastic-based casings for the legs are powered by batteries and help ease the process of walking for a child.
“It’s a robotic device that can provide the child with rehabilitation and mobility,” Maggu said. Often disabled children get tired easily and develop an awkward gait. ReX is intended to address that.
“Their body has never been taught the correct gait and they naturally fall into a lowest energy gait cycle. So, if one leg is weaker, you’re putting a lot more force on the other leg. When the exoskeleton is attached onto the walker, firstly it’s going to move your legs in the correct gait pattern. Secondly, you can adjust the parameters, so if one leg is weaker than the other, you can adjust the settings accordingly so that both of them are being exercised at the same time. Thirdly, it can actually help you walk longer periods. Our vision is this can actually be a wheelchair replacement,” he said.
The ReX will also allow such children to enjoy walking outdoors, which is problematic with walkers. At this time, they have prototypes of the device at clinics in the region, and have parents bring their children to their office to try them out.
A lot of the fabrication is being done in India, with Maggu’s brother involved in that process.
Part of the effort is to make the device “cool” for the child, from the Iron Man vibe to “gamifying” it and having an interactive interface with a tablet which can also play the kid’s favourite cartoon to keep them engaged, Maggu said.
These are, in a sense, the first steps for the young company. “We envision that our technology can be used to build a pathway for all those with disabilities, not just children but adults as well,” Maggu said.
But for now, the focus is on getting the device to the market. And just as importantly, getting it to its prime inspiration, as Maggu said, “I’m going to take it to Delhi for Praneit.”