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Vancouver exoskeleton takes first round of international mobility competition

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Dr. Siamak Arzanpour’s business card is a constant reminder of the mission he’s on. Next to the typical name, company and logo reads the unusual job title of “Make Chloe Walk Again.”

It’s the title shared by everyone at Human in Motion Robotics Inc. The Chloe refers to Chloe Angus, a local fashion designer whose life was completely altered three years ago when doctors discovered a tumour pressing against her spine. Within days, she lost her ability to stand and has since needed a wheelchair to get around.

Now, she’s helping Arzanpour and his team of scientists and engineers develop a new device to help not only her, but all paraplegics walk.

Their work has already made them one of 10 international teams to win the Discovery Award in the first round of the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge and earn a $50,000 prize.

“This financial support for small teams like ours is a huge relief that we can actually, instead of looking for money, we now have a source of money that we can use for focusing on development,” Arzanpour said.

The win is personal for Angus, who says from the moment the doctors told her she would never walk again she was online searching for a solution.

“The day that I strapped on a wearable robotic suit and it stood me up and brought me across the room, when I was told I would never walk again, it changed my day and my outlook on what technology could offer people with mobility issues,” Angus said.

But she soon discovered learning to walk with the then rudimentary machine would be easier said than done. The device’s limited mobility and range of motion made it difficult to walk and nearly impossible to turn without help.

Those issues are what the team hopes their exoskeleton will address.

“If you don’t have the full range of motion, if you cannot walk naturally, you cannot maintain your balance. Balance is very critical if you want to be independent,” Arzanpour said.

Their device, which attaches to the user’s hips, offers a full range of lower body motion and the goal is to program it to help the wearer balance and cope with all kinds of terrain and an uneven world.

“With the prize money that we received from Toyota we are able to advance our project to the point of human trials which I am so excited about because it means I’m going to be trying it on and I’ll be standing a moving again like I did only a couple years ago,” Angus said.

Of the 94 teams that entered the competition, 10 per cent of them were Canadian.

The competition now moves into the second stage where finalists and other teams will compete for a share of $3.5 million USD. The deadline is Aug. 15, meaning the team will have to act fast.

“A huge part of it is the validation that we’re working on the right thing,” Angus said. “I’m a proud Canadian and like all proud Canadians we’re known for building the robotic arm and I like to say that now we’re also going to be known for building robotic legs.”

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