This article is sponsored by MTDC
In 2013, Azman Yeop Akil entered the Malaysian Book of Records as the first disabled Malaysian to cycle more than 1,000km over six states of Peninsular Malaysia with a bionic leg. Azman whose right leg was amputated after being hit by a motorcycle in 2005 was using the Bionic Prosthetic developed by Bioapps Sdn Bhd, a University of Malaya’s spin-off company, established under the Centre for Applied Biomechanics (CAB), Faculty of Engineering.
Azman is proof that with the help of prosthetics, the sky’s the limit. And since then, Bioapps Sdn Bhd has been testing out various versions of the technology – from prosthetic legs fitted with sensor technology to a fully robotic ankle-foot prosthesis powered by an advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) control system, also known as BioApps RoMicP™.
The RoMicP™ improves the wearer by aiding them to walk better in different types of ground surfaces such as slope, stairs, walking on gravel, and sand. This latest feature, according to Professor Ir. Dr Noor Azuan, director of Bioapps Sdn Bhd, gives better heel strike and toe-off than normal non-robotic ankle-foot components.
“Below-knee amputation affects the capacity to walk and the mobility to move with reduced speed, uneven terrain, unbalanced weight, higher energy use and asymmetry. Long-term consequences include joint degenerative disease and low back discomfort would eventually happen as well without the right support.”
“The BioApps suspension system is better in terms of easy donning and doffing, less friction to the amputated limb which avoids blister and ulcer, and provides better mounting which is good for an amputee who has an active lifestyle,” he said.
Apart from being driven by a sophisticated AI control system, combined with a high-quality prosthetic foot, the robotic ankle-foot prosthesis is aimed at empowering users towards greater self-reliance.
Old vs new prosthesis
While the passive ankle-foot prosthesis is more commonly used by amputees, however, its features have many disadvantages for users. Some of the elements of passive prosthesis include, first and foremost, a leaf spring composed of strong metals or, in some cases, carbon fibre to imitate the particular stiffness and damping properties of a healthy ankle.
The second aspect of this leaf spring is that it may save and release some energy during the gait (pattern of walking) circle; nevertheless, this is a drawback for passive prosthesis since the energy from the spring is exerted by the users themselves. Hence, the passive prosthesis cannot create net power for users. This impact is critical since a healthy ankle must contribute more than 70% of the energy required for walking.
For an active amputee, walking using stiff and rigid ankle-foot components is not suitable and comfortable for a lot of active lifestyles. The RoMicP™ provides a better gait cycle to the wearer mimicking the real human foot and helps the amputee walk and is active for a longer duration.
“The powered ankle-foot prosthesis is the best solution to help amputees. At least one degree of freedom of the ankle joint; the dorsiflexion and plantarflexion – can somehow provide the same range of motion as the sound leg. The most outstanding advantage is the powered device can transfer electrical energy into the kinetic energy at the ankle joint. With the control system, the performance of the powered ankle prosthesis can be tuned according to user preference, familiarity and adaptation to these devices,” said Dr Azuan.
The powered prosthesis control algorithm adjusts the stiffness of the ankle joint to the walking rate and speed. A powered prosthesis can boost an amputee’s confidence while also reducing metabolic stress. All of these benefits help to restore gait symmetry and lower the danger of falling.
The high technology of robotic prosthetic foot
In the designing and creation of RoMicP™ Prosthetic Foot, Dr Noor Azuan said: “The most serious challenge is that the control system must somehow tolerate the coupling elements and ensure the stability of the gait. The human gait has a chaotic nature where the walking patterns are always not fully periodic. For able-bodied people, the central pattern generators in the spinal cord generate the proper commands to the calf muscles to create the desired trajectory of the foot at the different walking terrains and speeds. For amputees, using a powered ankle-foot prosthesis the high-level controller takes over this pattern generator.”
However, Bioapps Sdn Bhd managed to overcome the challenge by adapting the existing commercialised powered ankle-foot prosthesis. They confine the robotic ankle-foot design of RoMicP™ to the greater level of flexibility required by the movement to fulfil the weight and complicated locking mechanism requirements. In addition, the mechanical design of RoMicP™ is also being considered for 3D printing to manufacture all the support parts of RoMicP™. Special thanks to this outstanding mechanical performance of advanced materials, the robotic prosthetic foot is lightweight, strong structures and customised mechanical design can be produced easily and quickly.
Such advancement in Malaysia’s very own robotic prosthetic foot is made possible with funds by the National Technology and Innovation Sandbox Program (NTIS). The NTIS which is supported by the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), acts as a key player in providing a sandbox for new technologies and start-ups, assisting them with capacity building, market access, funding, test environment facilitation, and regulatory assessment.
Prior to this, BioApps Sdn Bhd is also one of the recipient companies for Commercialisation of Research and Development Fund (CRDF) in 2016, funded by MTDC for commercialising prosthetic suspension systems for their lower limb prosthesis.
Evidently, not only humans benefit from innovation in prosthetics. With the funds from CRDF, BioApps Sdn Bhd was able to design and fit a crippled elephant, Ellie with an artificial prosthetic. The five-year-old female elephant lost her right foot after being trapped in a wire snare meant for wild boars in Jeli, Kelantan in November 2017.
The sponsorship for two leg prostheses to the baby elephant currently at Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre, Lanchang, Pahang which will commence in December 2021 is part of in-kind repayment of CRDF funding received by BioApps Sdn Bhd.
Now everyone can walk
Malaysia’s first robotic prosthetic foot was designed for a good cause to benefit the ones in need. One of the major advantages of RoMicP™ is the inexpensive price that comes with it. “With the goal of designing a new generation of powered ankle prosthesis for everyone, we tried to reduce the price of RoMicP™. Compared with that of commercialised prosthetics, the affordable price of our product will benefit many people,” he added.
RoMicP™ is currently marketed to patients in private and government hospitals, and to the public through social media and business networks. Bioapps Sdn Bhd also aims to widen the market to other countries, to be one of the main component suppliers and not just as a service provider of Prosthetics & Orthotics.
Another benefit is the services provided by Bioapps Sdn Bhd which include training for the use of RoMicP™ with various types of biomechanical equipment. This involves a professional group to assist in tuning and updating the device, online data analysis to further improve the experience and utilisation of the robotic prosthetic foot, and an easy app for daily monitoring.
When a person uses RoMicP™, they get to experience more satisfaction in walking and stairs climbing in their everyday lives. Higher overall satisfaction with the quality of life can be achieved with RoMicP™ where patients can feel more secure with a stable base of support from the function of the device to the kind assistance provided by the company. RoMicP™ not only helps with their physical needs and demands but also improves a person’s overall well-being too.
Giving the joy of walking, dancing and running back again.
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