Project MARCH: Improving the Quality of Life for People with Spinal Cord Injuries

Replacing the conventional wheelchair with an exoskeleton can bring several medical benefits and improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries.

07 Jun, 2022

Project MARCH: Improving the Quality of Life for People with Spinal Cord Injuries

This article is a part of our University Technology Exposure Program. The program aims to recognize and reward innovation from engineering students and researchers across the globe.

Life with Spinal Cord Injury

Annually 180,000 people get a spinal cord injury due to trauma. A spinal cord injury often leads to reduced independence in daily life. People with a motor-complete spinal cord injury around the thoracic vertebrae or above will no longer be able to move without aid or assistance from others. The satisfaction with life of patients reduces; nearly 70% of patients who have recently suffered a spinal cord injury have a reduced quality of life and significant amounts of pain. Within rehabilitation treatments, regaining the ability to stand and walk is a top priority, as patients see this as their primary disability despite the other complaints.

Nevertheless, the wheelchair is an adequate primary means by which patients can move around. The resulting lifestyle is always sitting or lying down, which leads to physical deconditioning. The lack of standing, locomotion, muscle activity, and weight-bearing cause body composition to change. The adipose tissue increases, and the bone density and muscle mass decrease. Additional complications arise, such as muscle atrophy, broken bones, decreased bladder and bowel function, pressure sores, osteoporosis, increased spasticity, and pain.

Exercise has a positive effect on overall health, bone density, muscle tone and cardiovascular fitness, heart disease, and risk of obesity. Therefore, spinal cord injury patients are encouraged to do this as much as possible, but options for doing so are limited. 

The Project MARCH exoskeleton

A robotic exoskeleton could be a promising alternative to a wheelchair. The exoskeleton allows the user to stand upright and move independently, both in a medical setting and in the home environment. An exoskeleton gives promising results. Literature states that walking in an exoskeleton has a significant impact on body composition and bone mass. It also has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, bladder- and bowel function, degree of spasticity, pain, and quality of life. 

project-march-conceptFig. 1: MARCH VI exoskeleton

Currently, the existing exoskeletons are limited. It gives the user medical benefits, but it is not ready for daily use. Project MARCH wants to design, develop, and build an exoskeleton for daily use. Each year, a new team of enthusiastic students builds a new exoskeleton with the help of someone with a spinal cord injury. He is involved in the whole process, from designing it to testing. Along the way, he gives us feedback and tips. We do not focus solely on the technical aspect of how the exoskeleton works. We also focus on the ease of use: how can you effortlessly transfer from wheelchair to exoskeleton? How can we make the whole experience more user-friendly?

Each year, the team iterates on the prototype of last year. Last year, the goal was to go outside. Previously the walking patterns of the exoskeleton were based on known dimensions and a known environment. If you go outside, the environment is not predictable anymore. Therefore, they implemented cameras in the exoskeleton so they could adapt to the environment. They went outside and walked a route through Delft, The Netherlands, in the summer of 2020. 

This year we want to walk dynamically: this entails that we want to calculate, in real-time, every step that the exoskeleton needs to make. Dynamic walking enables the user to walk continuously, even when the ground is uneven and unpredictable. 

Next to enabling the patient to tackle different grounds, we want to improve the user-friendliness of the exoskeleton. The hinge at the hip of the exoskeleton makes the transfer between the wheelchair and exoskeleton easier. Furthermore, we created a mechanism that allows the crutches to be attached to the front of the exoskeleton to help create a stable base, which keeps the pilots hands-free.

Lastly, Project MARCH is experimenting with the input device. Currently, the user selects if he wants to walk, sit down or stand via a smartphone mounted on the right crutch. We want to implement electroencephalography or EEG, this year to let the user control the exoskeleton with his brain.

The Design Process

The objective of Project MARCH is to use technology to improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries. Each year a new team of highly motivated students takes on this challenge. The wishes of the user of the exoskeleton are a high priority. Therefore, we design the exoskeleton in co-creation with the user. We believe that incorporating the user throughout the design process can make the exoskeleton more suitable for daily use. 

We are a non-profit student organization. So we can purely focus on developing the best exoskeleton possible. We are transparent in the technology we innovate. We want to stimulate the industry to innovate together with us. Therefore, we have open-source software. We strive to make the hardware open source as well.     

Project MARCH will focus on making the exoskeleton self-balanced in the coming years since this will make the exoskeleton even more suitable for daily life. Also, topics such as making the exoskeleton fit for multiple pilots are on the agenda so we can help as many people as possible.  

About the University Technology Exposure Program 2022

Wevolver, in partnership with Mouser Electronics and Ansys, is excited to announce the launch of the University Technology Exposure Program 2022. The program aims to recognize and reward innovation from engineering students and researchers across the globe. Learn more about the program here.

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07 Jun, 2022

Project MARCH is one of the Dreamteams of the Technical University Delft that develops and builds an exoskeleton so people with a spinal cord injury can stand up and walk again.

Wevolver 2022