Catch me if I fall. The idiom has been used metaphorically in songs, literature, and common speech for a long time. But the team of Singapore-based researchers behind the Mobile Robotic Balance Assistant (MRBA) program means it literally. A robot designed to aid people who have issues with balance or difficulty walking, MRBA can learn the user’s balance ability level and gait to help them stay upright, working with a mix of robotic and human controls. The design is similar to that of a motorized wheelchair but with a belt-like waist support and two high arms that offer assistance as the user walks, backed by a trio of motion sensors that can detect when a person begins to fall. An RGB-D camera gauges the person’s gait.
Using a learning-based algorithm, MRBA estimates the user’s balance state in real time, offering support and monitoring that might otherwise need to be done by a caregiver. In Powered Wheelchair mode, MRBA functions much like a traditional powerchair, with the user seated and guiding MRBA’s movements with a hand controller. But with MRBA’s Walking and Balance mode, the user walks ahead of the device, connected by a padded waist harness and supported on both sides by MRBA’s arms. To shift from seated to standing mode, the chair’s seat has a handy user-activated power lift, offering the same in reverse for descension.
Dubbed a “follow-me robot” by its creators, MRBA’s soft waist harness moves with the user in the direction of their falls, which include tripping while walking, static falls straight down, and side falls. But with the harnesses’ intuitive support, the person never hits the ground, remaining upright and cushioned by the soft support around their midsections. It’s a solution to a range of balance issues that affect a wide spectrum of people. These include those who have trouble walking due to degeneration with age, people with chronic neurological issues such as Parkinson’s disease, patients with musculoskeletal problems due to injury, and more.
But MRBA isn’t just intended to get people with balance issues from point A to point B; it’s also designed with physical rehabilitation in mind. While securely connected to the device, users can do common rehabilitation exercises; standing on one leg, balancing on a rocker board, and side stepping are all possible without fear of falling. As are daily activities. For example, putting pants on in the morning can be a challenge for people with physical impairments, made much easier with some support from a follow-me robot. And throughout the day, MRBA can be there to catch them if they fall.