The smile on his face, when he rose to his full length of over 1 metre 90, was unforgettable. Spontaneous cheers and applause erupted from news crews and students alike. Ruben de Sain, paraplegic since his motorbike accident twelve years ago, stood on his own two feet again thanks to the exoskeleton constructed by the student team March. Two generations of about 30 students have made these robotic legs a reality.
The students and De Sain have about a month to prepare for the Cybathlon Experience in Dusseldorf. There they will face four challenges: getting out of a low sofa, walking up stairs, climbing and descending a slope, and walking over uneven or rough terrain. The team will train together twice a week. During these sessions, the students will fine tune the exoskeleton to De Sain’s movements. Tackling the concourse will be a group effort.
After getting up, De Sain looked ahead, took a deep breath and got walking. Supported by his crutches, he walked on his own two legs, embedded in the exoskeleton. There was a rhythmic sound from the activation of the pistons as he walked, chaperoned by two students who kept him safe and secure. De Sain walked for about 20 metres, stopped, turned around, and stalled.
Team manager Donald Dingemanse explained that the display in the right crutch had given up. The control mechanism in the crutch is regarded as one of the benefits of the March system, but it got temporarily unhinged. As a consequence, De Sain could not start the walk back and sat down at the far end.
While the students disassembled the control mechanism to trace the bug, De Sain took time out to do the interviews.
“Looking into the future,” he said, “I’d like to see the exoskeleton work without the need for crutches. The robot legs should also be less noisy and more compact so that you can get into a car wearing them.”
After the event in October, Project March will further develop their exoskeleton for the second Cybathlon competition in Zurich in 2020.