Independence Day

How to help people with disabilities be more self-reliant

Using new technology and gadgets to help the elderly and people with disabilities stay independent in and outside the home is the approach favoured by most health specialists, not to mention policymakers and governments. The IEC is preparing International Standards focusing on this approach under the global aegis of its Systems Committee on active assisted living (SyC AAL).

gym with a robot
Bots are not only useful, they can be fun as well (Photo: Zora Robotics)

Robot, my friend

Assistive robots with sensory and monitoring functions have been used in healthcare for over a decade. In 2004, Japanese inventor Dr Takanori Shibata created a seal lookalike robot named Paro. The bot made eye contact and had the ability to learn behaviour that elicited a positive response from the user. Things have moved on since then and today’s assistive robots can help with a wide array of tasks from bathing to lifting heavy objects, while being able to read facial expressions, obey voiced commands and understand gestures. These robots are equipped with multiple digital cameras and stereo equipment (speakers and microphones). IEC Technical Committee (TC) 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, has set up a Technical Area, TA 16: Active assisted living (AAL) accessibility and user interfaces, to address AAL-specific issues.

These robots are also equipped with a variety of sensors, including heart rate and blood pressure monitors as well as changes in motion, audio and scent detectors which can flag up dangerous situations for people living alone. IEC Subcommittee (SC) 47E: Discrete semiconductor devices, prepares International Standards for the design, manufacture and use of sensors.

Wheelchair revolution

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 70 million people in the world require a wheelchair for moving inside and outside their homes but many in the developing world cannot access them because they are too expensive. The organization estimates that only 15% of people in developing countries have a wheelchair. If they do get one, it is highly likely not to be adapted to them in terms of their weight, size or disability.

This situation is starting to evolve thanks to the latest 3D printing and scanning technology. London-based charity Hack On Wheels, for instance, has created an online library of tried and tested open source designs. People can search the archive to find what they require and get it printed in 3D, making the chair easy to customize and not expensive to produce. In another example, a Vienna-based lab has produced a concept for a child’s wheelchair with parametric joints that can actually grow with the child. It includes a backrest made of foam based on a 3D body scan which fits the individual perfectly and makes the chair much more comfortable than it would otherwise be.

In sport, technology is moving fast as well. A recent partnership between industry and UK Sport has produced a state-of-the-art wheelchair for disabled athletes based on several technologies. A leading German automotive manufacturer used a 3D scan of a seated athlete to produce a personalized chair. From the scan, a digital model was made, simulating the aerodynamic changes that occur when athletes move. This resulted in modifications to the chair frame, reducing its drag by 15%. Drag affects the ability to maintain speed, especially when hitting a headwind or an incline. The chair was run through tests in BAE Systems wind tunnels to assess its aerodynamic efficiency, and its manoeuvrability was measured using tracking technology developed by a prominent Formula 1 racing team.

IEC TC 76: Optical radiation and laser equipment, is preparing  Standards in this area, including high-power lasers used in industrial and research applications. Its work is essential for 3D printing and scanning.

The IEC is also paving the way together with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on Standards related to 3D printing technology, through a subcommittee of their Joint Technical Committee ISO/IEC JTC 1: Information technology. IEC/ISO JTC 1/SC 28: Office equipment, works on the standardization of some of the features and the testing of 3D scanners and printers.

Exoskeletons in the closet

Some visionaries like Tesla founder Elon Musk believe that in the near future we will all have to become cyborgs in a world where robots are the norm. While that remains in the realm of science-fiction, exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs are already helping people with disabilities overcome some of the hurdles resulting from their handicap. 

Volunteer network e-NABLE puts people needing prosthetic limbs (mostly hands and arms)  in contact with volunteer designers and creators who use 3D printing technology to manufacture bespoke artificial joints.

A French-based company has created the ALLUX knee, a smart remote-controlled limb. If the user stumbles, electronics take over control of the knee thanks to dedicated sensors which detect the advent of unsafe situations. Microprocessors immediately increase the hydraulic resistance so as to prevent the knee from suddenly buckling. An inbuilt lithium-ion battery provides sufficient power for between two and four days’ use. 

The Walk Again Project, a non-profit collaborative undertaking involving Brazilian, German, US and Swiss scientists, develops exoskeletons using the latest technology including virtual reality (VR), enabling the robotic encasing to be powered by the user’s brain. An example of their work was famously used by disabled Brazilian athlete Juliano Pinto to kick off the 2014 Football World Cup.

IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, is focusing on the appropriate Standards for lithium-ion batteries.

Alarm bells ringing

Routinely called the smart home, house interiors featuring multiples alarm systems, sensors, monitoring systems and detectors might appeal to the geeks among us but have a real usefulness for elderly or disabled people. Security products for AAL environments and smart homes include cameras, motion detectors, door and window sensors and alarms as well as electronic locks and panic buttons.

For instance, smoke detectors adapted for people with hearing impairments alert users by flashing intermittently. If the person is lying down, he or she can be warned by  a vibrating alarm under the pillow. The wireless transmitters in some of these systems can also connect to home security systems and send alerts from these. Another useful device is the liquid level indicator that beeps when a cup is nearly full, enabling visually impaired people to do something as simple as make a cup of tea without scalding themselves.

IEC TC 79: Alarm and electronic security systems, prepares International Standards for a wide range of applications and systems including electronic access control, alarm transmission, video surveillance, fire detection and fire alarm systems.

Voice-controlled or motion detector lights, robotic vacuum cleaners, window and blind controllers, emergency phone diallers – all have to be safe and efficient as any faulty apparatus could have disastrous consequences. The electronic components can be certified as safe and reliable thanks to the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components (IECQ). The worldwide approval and certification system covers the supply of electronic components, assemblies and associated materials and processes.