Engineering Student’s Research Aimed at Walking Again

A Vanderbilt mechanical engineering student is studying technology that can help overcome his paralysis.

It’s hard to imagine a better motivator than hardship. It’s hard to imagine a bigger obstacle than hardship. Experience can play out in very different ways. A Vanderbilt engineering student is taking his future into his own hands and working on new legs.

As described in a Vanderbilt News article, Andrew Ekelem, a mechnical engineering Ph.D. student, is working to develop an exoskeleton that would allow him to walk again. Ekelem suffered a paralyzing snowboarding accident, and despite multiple surgeries, was faced with the reality he might never walk again. At least on his own.

Originally inspired to study stem cell treatment of paralysis through bioengineering, Ekelem (shown at left in the image) later shifted his focus to mechanical engineering when he realized medical advances are exceptionally slow with such treatments. Looking for faster solutions, he joined up with advisor, Michael Goldfarb, H. Fort Flowers professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt, who has been developing exoskeleton technology for years.

Goldfarb’s exoskeleton design is in trials at five spinal cord rehabilitation centers across the US. Ekelem gets to work with and help advance the technology, which one day may allow him to walk again. Goldfarb acknowledges that Ekelem’s perspective is invaluable as well, and that his motivation will go a long way to making the concept successful.

The current exoskeleton design is called Indego and is licensed to Parker Hannifin under investigational use. The device weighs 26 lb, is made up of five pieces, which can be easily taken on and off, and is transportable.

Ekelem is working on collecting data and advancing the designs for greater efficiency and mobility. The newest addition is electronic stimulation to help promote the user’s own muscles to contribute to the motion, and thereby conserve battery life, as well as improving muscle health.

Seeing the promise this technology shows already, it is easy to imagine how well it will work 10 years from now. That is assuming the right people with the right motivation are keeping up the momentum.

The video below discusses more about the current Indego technology.


Image: John Russell/Vanderbilt University