As clinical trials go, this one is just a tad unusual: elderly people will race up and down the hall, behind their walkers.This summer, a research team at the University of Virginia’s Medical Automation Research Center in Charlottesville hopes to compare a prototype “smart” walker against the standard walkers now ubiquitous among the country’s elderly.
The group’s work aims to improve the quality of life, and especially the duration of independent life, for the over-65 population-which is expected to double to 70 million in the U.S. by 2030. Researcher Robin Felder outlined the walker’s progress at the Complex Adaptive Structures meeting held in Hutchinson Island, FL, in June.
The smart walker will guide users rather than pull them, providing assistance with steering and braking. It’s meant to require little training and to avoid intimidating users.
The prototype uses a laser scanner to sense the environment (a commercial version would employ a cheaper infrared sensor). It detects a user’s intentions primarily via pressure monitors in the handles. When necessary, it automatically steers a front wheel or clamps the brakes on the back wheels.
If a person loses footing, the walker will detect the high force and burst of speed, then hit the brakes to try and prevent a fall. The scanner also detects elevation-the walker will stop at a step or curb.
When a person using the smart walker enters a room with two doors, the scanner will detect these possible routes. The pressure applied naturally by the user will signal the walker to steer toward the door they want, and then steer safely through it. If the grandkids left a truck in the path, the walker will gradually steer around it. All the user must do is follow its lead.
Of course, the real world offers more complicated scenarios. Project leader Glenn Wasson points to potential additional features that could help out.
For instance, when entering the room with two doors, the person may simply want to go to a chair in the middle. One possible solution is a training process, in which the walker learns the location of important items around the house and includes them as steering options.
A walker could even be programmed to recognize verbal commands and steer accordingly.
If the walker steers incorrectly, users will have an override option. Also, it will be equipped with a pulse detector. A rapid increase of pulse rate, indicating anxiety, could trigger the walker to cancel its active mode.
Wasson says that a commercial version of the walker could be available in as little as a year. The main hurdle will be getting approval from the Federal Drug Administration.
Quality of Life
“These kinds of smart technologies are very, very important,” says Jeffrey Dwyer, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Allowing people to continue their accustomed ways of life while they age can offer profound emotional benefits, he points out.
Also, any technology that pushes back the age the average person must enter a nursing home by even a month can mean billions saved nationwide, Dwyer says.
More important, according to Dwyer, is the potential to lighten the load carried by the countless family members and friends who care for the elderly. “If you could attach a dollar figure to that, which you can’t,” he says, “it would be tens of billions in benefits to families.”