University of Limerick developing assistive exoskeletons for older adults

8 Apr 2015

€250,000 in funding has been awarded to researchers in the University of Limerick (UL) to help develop a cutting-edge exoskeleton to assist older adults.

Part of the wider AXO-SUIT project, UL is partnering with Cork-based MTD to design and manufacture the device, with the whole project in general billed as a three-year activity, with a budget of €3m.

UL’s involvement is headed by Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, senior lecturer of ergonomics and human factors in the college’s department of design and manufacturing technology.

It’s all about the user

“The research we’ll be doing here in Limerick is specifically in the area of user-centred design, and also the ergonomic modelling of the exoskeleton design as it comes together,” he explained.

User-centred design is critical in this field because, without it, functionality is useless.

“Exoskeletons have already been designed, some in rehabilitation settings. But in order for them to be able to be used in normal settings, they are going to have to be designed so they are useable. They’re technically fine, but for a user to put them on, we’re dealing with people of reduced mobility here…”

Dr O’Sullivan’s team of post-doctoral and post-graduate researchers will be working on the project, which actually began late last year, for the full three years – and the assistance of MTD seems a fine fit.

“MTD are an engineering company that have been doing a lot of work in the pharma and med tech area, so they have a very good reputation on the mechanical engineering side of things,” said Dr O’Sullivan.

The Cork company will be involved in the design evaluation from a mechanical point of view and they will also be manufacturing the trial exoskeletons.


An artist’s render of the project’s exoskeleton plans, via AXO-SUIT

This isn’t the first time Dr O’Sullivan and his UL team have worked on a project such as this. In the summer of 2013 he and his colleagues secured a major €480,000 in funding as part of a €5.8m EU project called Robomate.

In that instance too they were developing an exoskeleton, however it was related to industrial workers to help tackle musculoskeletal injuries.

In this case, Dr O’Sullivan hopes that come the expiration of the three-year project, he and his team will have developed a fully marketable product for an area set to boom.

Assisting people of reduced mobility is a growing concern worldwide, with World Health Organisation predictions that the world’s population of those aged over 60 will double by 2050.

By then representing 22pc of the world’s population, the imperative behind agility in our later years will become all the more important as the working lifespan is forced to increase for us all.

The project is coordinated by the European Commission’s Ambient Assisted Living project.

UL image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic