Edge of Innovation

Assistive technology: From connected canes to stair-climbing wheelchairs

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

The global population is ageing. “In mid-2014, the average age [in the UK] exceeded 40 for the first time,” says the Government’s Future of an Ageing Population report. “By 2040, nearly one in seven people is projected to be aged over 75.”

Coping with this demographic shift is going to require more than longer-lasting mobility scooters, stair lifts and apps that remind us when to pop our pills. We will need to adapt how we work, how we care for people, how we communicate and interact with each other, and how we get around.

Two billion of us will need assistive technology

According to the World Health Organisation, an ageing global population and a rise in noncommunicable diseases will mean that “more than 2 billion people will need at least 1 assistive product by 2050, with many older people needing 2 or more.”

Stephen Hawking assistive technology
Professor Stephen Hawking uses an assistive computer system that allows him to communicate.

What is assistive technology? On a basic level, it’s a hearing aid, a wheelchair or a pair of glasses, any device that improves a person’s independence. But dream bigger and it might be a health monitoring wearable, a driverless car or a robotic exoskeleton. Modern technology could help us stay active for longer.

Labour-saving devices

For example, one of the biggest challenges of the ageing process is gradual physical decline. Labour-saving devices can offset this in some respects. Robo mowers like the Flymo 1200R can already cut our lawns autonomously, robotic vacuums like the Dyson 360 Eye can clean our floors.

By 2040, 5G-equipped autonomous cars will be more commonplace and drone deliveries should be flying (or trundling) shopping to our doors. No need to walk to the store.

But reduced mobility is arguably the biggest problem facing the elderly — it’s why mobility scooters are a now a regular sight on our streets. But that’s just one solution to getting around when our bodies start to weaken. There are other ways that technology can keep us agile.

Canes, walkers and exoskeletons

The Dring Smart Cane, for example, is no ordinary walking stick. The handle is fitted with an accelerometer and gyroscope (to detect a fall), a GPS module (to track location) plus GSM connectivity (to alert people if there’s an emergency).

For those who need more help to walk, Keeogo is a “powered walking assistance device” — an exoskeleton for your legs. Developed by B-TEMIA Inc, the Keeogo features sensors at the knee and hip joints to detect movement and then provides extra motorised assistance to complement poor muscle strength.

Rather than bulky mobility scooters, we might see lightweight personal transportation devices on the streets of 2040. The Segway Robot (Loomo), for example, is part RealSense-equipped, auto-navigating R2-D2, part self-balancing Segway Mini Pro two-wheeler.

Even wheelchairs are becoming more high-tech. The Scewo (formerly Scalevo) is the ultimate off-roader, with self-balancing technology that enables it to drive up and down kerbs without assistance. Its clever rubber tracks, meanwhile, give it the ability to tackle stairs smoothly and safely.

It’s not just the elderly that need help either. Assistive technology can help people with disabilities lead more active lives, whether through powered wheelchairs that can drive themselves, an advanced, smartphone-connected walker device like the ROVA or a new generation of 3D printed prosthetic limbs.

Ultimately, assistive technology doesn’t have to be reactive. While most wearable devices are fitness-orientated (tracking steps taken, calories burned and hours slept), future devices could offer more all-round health benefits, monitoring your vital signs and forewarning against diseases such as diabetes and Parkinsons. Used in the right ways, technology has a vital role to play in keeping us all healthy.

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