A patient who is completely paralyzed below waist and can walk with the help of a wheelchair is walking on their feet. In the past, it was a miracle, but at present, there is a sentence in front of the miracle:”With the help of a robot”.
A robot replacing our body which is considered the distant future and seen in a movie like ‘Iron Man’ is becoming a reality. On the 8th, the first CYBATHLON, similar to ‘An Iron man Olympic’, was held in Zurich arena, Swiss. In the competition, Kim Byung-wook(42) who is completely paralyzed below waist, wore a robot suit called ‘Walk-on’ developed by Na Dong-wook (rehabilitation division at Yonsei university) and Gong Kyung-chul (mechanical engineering division at Seogang university) and is ranked in 3rd place. It reflects on the ‘Iron Man’ trend.
How was Walk-on developed? Is it possible to put it on the commercial market? If possible, how much does it cost? I interview Prof. Na to get these answers.
– First of all, as a doctor, I am wondering your motivation to have interest in a robot?
A.I have been interested in this area when I was a resident. Especially the most interesting part was motion analysis used in movies or animations and I wanted to use it to analyze movement, find the cause, and cure the handicapped in clinical trials.
I studied bio engineering field at Standford university in the USA. When I came back to Korea, I met Prof. Kyung-chul Gong who had been conducting the study of robots and wanted to apply it to patients.
-I heard it is difficult to have a collaborative research between medical and other industries.
A.We realized we could be a good partner in every aspect. The university (located in Shinchon) is close and because Seogang university doesn’t have a medical college, there is no pressure to conduct a collaborative study with a hospital that belongs to the university. It is difficult to work with doctors and engineers together because they are experts and have their own prospects. But I didn’t get deep knowledge about programming languages related to robot study in the USA while prof. Gong had deep knowledge in clinical trial.
We knew there was CYBATHLON and agreed to participate in the competition. Afterward, we developed Walk-on and took part in the ‘wearable robot’ game to pass through obstacles.
CYBATHLON is the international competition in the medical engineering field. It is a kind of Olympic in brain-machine interface, artificial legs, artificial arms, etc. The first competition was held in October this year in Swiss and the second one will be held in 2018 in Korea.
-Is there any difficulties to participate in? Especially, I think it might be difficult to collect participants.
A.We decided to take part last summer and started developing robots as well as looking for participants at the same time. Participants have to be handicapped and is willing to take the part. We didn’t have enough economic support for them, but fortunately, we could find the person who was Byung-wook Kim. He is the first grade handicapped person and is bound on a wheelchair. He is a wheelchair rugby player, regularly works out, and has a desire for winning. We were lucky to find this kind of player.
-Is there any trouble for Mr. Kim wearing the robot suit to participate in the game?
A.Many people think if patients wear the suit, they can immediately walk on their own, but the processes isn’t easy. A bicycle worth of hundreds of thousands won is useless to a person who doesn’t know how to ride it thus training is needed. It is the same to patients who don’t use their bodies for a long time. Preliminary tests are necessary to check whether their bones are strong enough to endure walking on their own or their joints aren’t hardened etc. Afterwards, they need to be trained in accordance with each step such as how to balance etc.
-How can you pay for development and participation fees? Is there any support from the government?
A.There was no assistance from the government. Prof. Gong and I paid for parts of the costs and a start-up company SG Machatronics helped us. But we couldn’t provide enough economic support to Mr. Kim. He came to the hospital from Kwangju, Kyung-gi province 4 times a week for training. If he hadn’t had passion and willingness, he couldn’t have made it. We are thankful for this and want him to appear on CF after the competition.
– Wasn’t there a CF offer?
A. There was a request to appear on TV, but as I know, there wasn’t a CF offer. Actually, Korean society does not pay proper attention on the handicapped. I think the media is interested in this event because this is related to robots. More social interest is needed for the handicapped.
-I think there will be many patients interested in ‘Walk-On’ after the news.
A.Yes, but ‘Walk-On’ is the robot developed for the competition. It means it is optimized for the event and has Over Spec in some parts. For example, it is equipped with 8 monitors, but needs only 4 monitors or there is much battery capacity etc. To put it on commercial market, easy mobility is necessary for patients, further research and enough money needs to be required to get to the level.
-How about corporate interest?
A.Some companies are interested, but no further progress.
-When will it be on the market?
A.Some companies in foreign countries have already sold it, but it’s too expensive. It costs more than 100million won per one suit. If a medical organization wants it for training, they will buy even though it costs more than 1 billion won, but individuals can’t afford it.
Moreover, current products released on the market are targeted for patients who can be movable. Some companies imported robot suits, but didn’t know the training period should be thorough. And few patients used them because they didn’t get exact information about them.
Personally, I expect a useful robot suit will be released faster than expected. I am sure robot technology such as walking-related robots as well as products for patients with paralyzed arms will bear fruit.
-Do you have a personal goal or wish?
A.First of all, I will continue to research until a robot suit is commercialized. And last year, a student with myasthenia entered the university. As you know, medical curriculum such as clinical training at a medical college isn’t favorable to the handicapped. But I am seeking a way to help him finish the clinical training and also do my best to release products that provide substantial help to the handicapped.
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