Irishman’s soft robotics exosuit wins major tech award

17 Nov 2016

Laureate Conor Walsh (left) and a colleague assemble an exosuit on a mannequin. Image: Rolex/Fred Merz

Irishman Conor Walsh’s soft robotics exosuit was among the award winners at the recent Rolex Awards, due to the creator’s continuing efforts to develop tech for the benefit of humanity.

Now in its 40th year, the Rolex Awards are part of an international philanthropic programme that supports new and ongoing projects by individuals taking on major challenges to benefit humankind.

Hosted last night at a public awards ceremony in Los Angeles, the awards were presented to 10 laureates – including five young laureates – that included such wide-ranging topics as opthamology and agritech.

Wonders of soft robotics

But from an Irish perspective, congratulations are in order for 35-year-old Conor Walsh who has developed a soft robotic suit that can be worn underneath clothes, and will enable physically impaired people to walk without assistance.

Having studied at Trinity College Dublin, Walsh moved to the US where he founded the Harvard Biodesign Lab. The lab brings together researchers to develop new disruptive robotic technologies for augmenting and restoring human performance.

Walsh was also influential in the research group that launched the Soft Robotics Toolkit as part of a STEM effort to teach young people about robotics.

Exosuit engine

The engine that powers the exosuit developed by Conor Walsh and his team. Image: Rolex/Fred Merz

Expected to be operational in three years

The Soft Robotics Toolkit will be familiar to attendees of Inspirefest 2016; where Dónal Holland discussed how the product was progressing, offering a workshop as part of the fringe festival of Inspirefest 2017.

The expectations are now that Walsh’s exosuit will be ready for use in about three years, after clinical trials and regulatory approval.

When fully operational, his exosuit will analyse and gradually train muscles, limbs and joints back into healthy patterns of movement.

Walsh was one of six men and four women chosen by an international jury of 12 experts, who had whittled down the entrants from a shortlist of 2,322 applicants representing 144 nationalities.

The other four adult winners included:

Andrew Bastawrous, 36, United Kingdom – An ophthalmologist whose team’s smartphone-based portable eye examination system, Peek Vision, is radically changing eye care in sub-Saharan Africa and other resource-poor settings.

Kerstin Forsberg, 32, Peru – A biologist protecting giant manta rays by helping fishermen pursue ecotourism as an alternative income source, and training them alongside ecotourists to collect data on the distribution and abundance of this species.

Vreni Häussermann, 46, Chile/Germany – She is exploring Chilean Patagonia’s fjords to document the unknown and unique life at the bottom of the sea at three remote areas, by combining exploration and science in an attempt to create support for conservation through public outreach.

Sonam Wangchuk, 50, India – A Ladakhi engineer who is solving the problem of a lack of water for agriculture in the desert landscapes of the western Himalayas, by building “ice stupas” that behave like mini artificial glaciers, slowly releasing water in the growing season.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic