Conor Walsh

2016 Laureate, Applied Technology
Ireland, Born 1981

walsh@seas.harvard.edu

Project Goal

Develop soft robotic suits to help stroke victims walk again 

Location: Boston, United States

Walking with robots

Millions of stroke sufferers and people with mobility problems may one day walk
confidently again thanks to soft robotic suits, worn under their clothes. For Irish
biomedical engineer Conor Walsh, “soft robotics” promise to revolutionize how
patients worldwide recover from trauma.
 
Under development in Walsh’s laboratory at Harvard University in the United
States, these light, close-fitting, textile, elastic and mechanized suits teach
damaged nerves, muscles, tendons and joints to do their job again, more quickly,
easily and efficiently than has ever been possible.
 
The soft “exosuit” developed by Walsh and his team at Harvard and Boston
universities is a piece of clothing equipped with tiny yet powerful motors, pulleys,
cables, movement sensors and intelligent software. It immediately reads what the
wearer is trying to do and assists them to walk better by making gentle corrections
to their movement and encouraging natural physical actions. This gives the patient
greater stability and confidence, saves their energy and may one day speed the
recovery process – outside the clinic as well as in it. “Patients love it,” Walsh says.
“They say it helps take the process of walking out of your head. You just get on
and do it.”
 
Walsh was a young engineer at Dublin’s Trinity College, wondering what to do
with his future, when his eye was drawn by an article in a science magazine about
robotic exoskeletons being developed in the US to help humans handle heavy
loads. “It struck an immediate chord with me. I thought: ‘That’s super cool. I’d like
to be a part of it’,” he says. So he applied to study at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT) under biomechatronics expert Professor Hugh Herr, and was
accepted.
 
But when he tried on a rigid exoskeleton he developed with Herr for the first
time, Walsh realized it was like being inside a robotic suit of armour. It was hard,
uncomfortable and ponderous, and didn’t always move the way a human would.
When he arrived at Harvard, he was inspired by the work of colleagues who were
experts in soft materials. “I saw immediately that if you had a softer, lighter suit
that accentuated the right actions, was comfy to wear and didn’t encumber you,
it could have huge biomedical applications,” he says. “I began to wonder: can we
make wearable robots soft?”
 
 
That was the light bulb moment, when the idea of marrying textile science with
robotics was born. Rigid exoskeletons were designed to increase the powers
of a normal, healthy human (or one who has been totally immobilized). Walsh
wondered if the same principle could be used to overcome partial physical
impairment: to teach the lame to walk freely again.
 
Worldwide, 15 million people suffer from strokes every year. Five million of them
eventually relearn how to walk, slowly, painfully and often with great difficulty
and long periods in “rehab”. The process for each patient places demands on
the time of doctors, therapists and rehabilitation experts, as well as costs to the
medical system. Early trials on 15 patients show the soft exosuit can improve
gait mechanics and efficiency, both important for improving mobility in patients
post-stroke. Longer term, the goal is to study the therapeutic effect with the
system.
 
“It’s not a replacement for normal rehabilitation therapy. It’s a new tool
for extending and accelerating it,” Walsh explains. The soft suit can be worn in
the patient’s own home, moving training and recovery beyond the clinic and its
limited hours. What it does can still be monitored online by therapists, so the suit’s
actions can be retuned to the patient’s changing needs.
 
Beyond the needs of stroke patients, there are also the sufferers of Parkinson’s
disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis),
muscular dystrophy – and the enormous, ever-growing world population of elderly people with walking difficulties.
 
Walsh pays tribute for the success of the project today to the extraordinary
collaborative fusion of his team – which includes electrical and mechanical
engineers, IT experts, apparel and textile designers, biomechanicians, therapists,
neuroscientists and clinicians. “With such a mix of skills, you solve problems
really fast and often in unconventional ways,” he explains. “It’s a very inspirational
environment to work in. The ideas come from all directions.”
 
Through partnerships with Harvard’s Wyss Institute and biomedical company
ReWalk, he has been able to launch the soft exosuit on its path to eventual
commercialization, fulfilling his passionate conviction that science should yield
valuable and practical outcomes for humanity as quickly as possible. From proof
of concept, which was achieved in early 2016, the medical version of the suit
is expected to be ready in approximately three years, after clinical trials and
regulatory approval.
 
The Rolex Award will assist by enabling Walsh to establish relationships with
clinicians and patients around the world for future clinical trials, and to share
the insights he has gathered in developing the soft exosuit through a website,
publications and talks. In addition, Walsh is strongly committed to education and
outreach, and will share knowledge from this project as widely as possible to
engage and inspire more bright young minds in creatively solving the challenges
of the present and future.

Other 2016 Laureates