Engineering Better Technology for Children with Movement Disorders

The Problem

Cerebral palsy (CP) afflicts about 36 of every 10,000 children worldwide and causes severe mobility issues. In fact, 31 percent of those with CP – 2 million children – have limited or no walking ability. The current standard of care in treating and helping children with CP includes passive braces and intense, regular physical therapy.

Parker Hannifin, a global leader in motion control technologies, had previously developed a lower body exoskeleton that helps adult patients walk. Its positive results from that endeavor has led the company to explore extending the technology for pediatric patients. However, the complexity of the technical and design requirements for a pediatric exoskeleton requires additional expertise.

The Expert

“I was attracted to the mechanical engineering aspects of the pediatric exoskeleton because of the unique design constraints,” said Jerzy Sawicki, vice president for research, Bently and Muszynska endowed chair, and professor of mechanical engineering at Cleveland State University’s (CSU) Washkewicz College of Engineering. Specifically, the exoskeleton must be extremely light, adjustable, and simple to use, while operating very quietly with control methods that ensure the child’s safety.

The pediatric exoskeleton is aimed at small children ages 6 to 11, but its design constraints comprise a large challenge. Fortunately, Parker has a decades-long relationship with CSU, originally established by its founder, a CSU graduate, so Parker teamed up with Sawicki in 2013 to address the challenge. Parker provides resources and its own engineers to collaborate with Sawicki and his students, as well as with collaborator Dan Simon, associate vice president for research and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at CSU.

The Solution

The new pediatric exoskeleton, designed, developed and manufactured at Sawicki’s CSU lab, is a device that wraps around the child’s waist, with two leg attachments above and below each knee. Four patented, high-torque, quiet actuators at each knee and hip help the child walk, along with embedded gyroscopes and accelerometers.

The prototype weighs just over 5 kilograms (11 pounds), three to five times lighter than competing prototypes. Thanks to 3D printing, the exoskeleton is almost unlimited in its scalability to children of different sizes.

The device is now in bench-top testing at the university, with plans to move on to further prototyping, testing and clinical trials in the near future.