By adding electronics and computation technology to a simple cane that has been around since ancient times, Columbia Engineering researchers have created a robotic device that provides "light-touch" assistance to the elderly or people with impaired mobility.

The autonomous robot “walks” alongside the individual, providing support much like one might lightly touch a companion’s arm or sleeve to maintain balance while walking.

The study, led by professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia Engineering Sunil Agrawal, is published today in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters .

“Often, elderly people benefit from light hand-holding for support,” explained Agrawal, who is also a member of Columbia University’s Data Science Institute. “We have developed a robotic cane attached to a mobile robot that automatically tracks a walking person and moves alongside.”

The light-touch robotic cane, called CANINE, acts as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device improves the individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, during walking, which in turn improves stability and balance.

The subjects walk on a mat instrumented with sensors, while the mat records step length and walking rhythm — essentially the space and time parameters of walking.

"We can analyze a person’s gait and the effects of light touch on it,” said Agrawal.

With the help of virtual-reality glasses, 12 subjects each walked 10 laps on the instrumented mat, both with and without the robotic cane.

The visual environment was designed to perturb and shake the user both side-to-side and forward-backward. In the virtual environments, the light-touch support of the robotic cane caused all subjects to narrow their strides. The narrower strides, which represent a decrease in the base of support and a smaller oscillation of the center of mass, indicate an increase in gait stability due to the light-touch contact.

“The next phase in our research will be to test this device on elderly individuals and those with balance and gait deficits to study how the robotic cane can improve their gait,” said Agrawal, who directs the Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory. “In addition, we will conduct new experiments with healthy individuals, where we will perturb their head-neck motion in addition to their vision to simulate vestibular deficits in people.”