According to a 2019 CDC report on all forms of disability, about 14% of American adults have mobility disabilities, which are defined as “serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.” People with mobility disabilities include those who are restricted to wheelchairs, but also individuals with impaired gait or balance.

Researchers from Columbia Engineering published a study in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters that presents the advantages of an autonomous robotic cane that provides light-touch support to help people who have stability issues while walking. Called CANINE, the mobile assistant improves individuals’ self-awareness in space — or proprioception — while they walk.

The Columbia engineers tested the robotic cane with 12 healthy subjects by employing virtual reality glasses that artificially altered the visual environment by shaking side-to-side and forward-and-backward on an instrumented mat. Each subject walked 10 laps on the map with and without the CANINE. When the subjects used the light-touch robotic assistant, their strides were narrower, indicating improved gait stability.

So far, the researchers have tested the light-touch robotic cane with healthy individuals. The next steps include testing with elderly people and with people with balance and gait problems. The Columbia engineers will also subject healthy people to virtual reality that mimics the neck and head movements of vestibular deficits along with vision problems to assess the cane’s further potential to help.