We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Business Impact

Smart Walker Strolls Ahead

Well-trained device takes small steps for an aging mankind.

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.

Seeing-Eye Guide

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.

Trickier Tracks

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.”

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
More from Business Impact

How technology advances are changing the economy and providing new opportunities in many industries.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to All Access Digital.
  • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.