Experts in the US have developed what they believe to be the most biologically-accurate robotic legs yet, saying that the new system could deepen our understanding of how babies learn to walk.
The new technology, which has been documented in the Journal of Neural Engineering, could also help us develop new techniques for spinal-injury treatment. A UK expert has called the work “exciting” based on the fact that the robot mimics control and not just movement.
US researchers from the University of Arizona have developed a new version of the message system that generates the rhythmic muscle signals that control walking. They were able to replicate the central pattern generator (CPG), which generates rhythmic muscle signals.
The CPG is what allows people to walk without thinking about it. Arizona researchers believe that babies use a half-centre- which is the simplest form of a CPG- to start with, and then over time develop a more complex walking pattern.
Writing in the journal, the team says: “This robot represents a complete physical, or ‘neurorobotic’ model of the system, demonstrating the usefulness of this type of robotics research for investigating the neuropsychological processes underlying walking in humans and animals”.
Dr Theresa Klein, who worked on the study, said: “This underlying network may also form the core of the CPG and may explain how people with spinal cord injuries can regain walking ability if properly stimulated in the months after the injury.”
Previous models have worked by mimicking human movement, but this new model advances on previous attempts by mimicking the underlying human control mechanisms that drive this movement.
The new model could have several other health benefits because it links problems such as hip, knee, and ankle joint difficulties with the nervous system, which is what actually controls the movement. Experts have called the development “exciting” for the field.