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B.C.-made exoskeletons could 'change the world' for the physically disabled

"The first time I walked with the exoskeleton was a jaw-dropping experience."

Vancouver-based fashion designer Chloe Angus thought she'd be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life after being diagnosed with an inoperable benign tumour in her spinal cord in 2015, resulting in permanent loss of mobility in her legs.

Now, however, she’s been using a state-of-the-art robotic exoskeleton known as XoMotion that can help physically disabled people self-balance, walk, sidestep, climb stairs and crouch.

“The first time I walked with the exoskeleton was a jaw-dropping experience,” said Angus. “After all these years, the exoskeleton let me stand up and walk on my own without falling. I felt like myself again.”

She added the exoskeleton has the potential to completely change the world for people with motion disabilities.

XoMotion is the result of a decade of research and the product of a Simon Fraser University spinoff company, Human in Motion Robotics (HMR) Inc. It’s the brainchild of professors Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park.

Arzanpour and Park, both researchers in the Burnaby-based university’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, began work on the device in 2014. They had a vision to enhance exoskeleton technology and empower individuals with mobility challenges to have more options for movement.

“We felt that there was an immediate need to help people with motion disabilities to walk again, with a full range of motion. At the time, exoskeletons could only walk forward. That was the only motion possible,” Arzanpour said.

XoMotion allows individuals with mobility challenges to stand up and walk on their own, without additional support.

“The user is in control,” he said. “They can actually walk independently without any assistance from anybody and do all of the complex motions without arm crutches.”

Sensors within the lower-limb exoskeleton mimic the human body’s sense of logic to identify structures along the path, and in-turn, generate a fully balanced motion.

Angus said she was searching the world for something to help her find a better way through her life after her diagnosis.

“I was absolutely amazed that I found a team right in my own backyard at Simon Fraser University in Surrey,” she said.

The SFU professors, who first met in 2001 as graduate students at the University of Toronto, co-founded HMR in 2016, bringing together a group of students, end-users, therapists, and organizations to build upon the exoskeleton.

Through a mutual connection at SFU’s Surrey campus, Arzanpour and Park were introduced to Angus, who quickly became a key member of the HMR team by working as an end-user to test the exoskeleton throughout its stages of development.

“Without Chloe and her inspiration, we wouldn’t be here today. Her contributions to our success are monumental,” said Arzanpour, who envisions the technology one day be available as an assistive option in public settings, such as malls.

“When I look back and see how far we’ve come, I can say that it wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing team,” he said.

Video produced by Alanna Kelly