Robotics are increasingly finding their place in clinical settings, especially as patients undergo rehabilitation processes. Lower-body exoskeletons, therapy robots, and neuroscience advancements are helping individuals walk again, regain motor functionality, and recover from a stroke.

But how safe are these devices?

In a Tech Briefs presentation titled How Robotics Are Revolutionizing Rehabilitation, an attendee asked our experts:

“How is safety assured with assistive robotics?”

Hermano Igo Krebs, Principal Research Scientist and Lecturer at MIT, and Sunil Agrawal, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Rehabilitation/Regenerative Medicine at Columbia University, explained why exoskeletons are safer in the controlled environment of a clinic.

Read their edited responses below.

Agrawal: It’s important that we bring the user into the design process. Of course, you have to continuously refine your solution. How can you make the system most effective for them?

For example, when you create one of these exoskeletons, one of the issues is: How well does the exoskeleton fit the individual? I think it’s very important to do these iterations with the clinician, and that this is a loop that keeps on going.

As engineers we, of course, bring in safety issues like hardware, and stops, and software limits. But the more you design with the patient in mind, the more it will help you in the long run.

Krebs: This is a very good and difficult question. For the most part, when you use the technology inside a clinic, it’s not more dangerous than perhaps a treadmill. Under controlled environments, the safety of pretty much all of the robotic devices has been shown to be very good.

We have been working in this space for more than 20 years, and you typically have a very good profile inside a clinical setting. That said, when you start using assistive technology outside a controlled environment, for example when patients use an exoskeletal robot to eventually walk on the street, you start to have far more difficult scenarios that need to be further explored.

Watch the full presentation: How Robotics Are Revolutionizing Rehabilitation.

Share your comments and questions below.

The Active Leg Exoskeleton (ALEX), a robotic device built to help stroke patients recover their gait and mobility, was designed in Columbia Engineering’s Robotics and Rehabilitation Laboratory — a facility directed by Dr. Agrawal. (Image Credit: Columbia, 2015)