Judy Warner: Robbert, please tell us about your major at Delft Technical University and your role at Project March.
Robbert de Lange: I’m studying civil engineering and my role on the Project March team is Acquisition and PR. Presently, I have taken off a full year of studies to focus full-time on Project March.
Warner: What motivated you to take a full year off of your studies to invest in Project March?
De Lange: Beyond all the academic learning and discipline gained at university, I want to dedicate this year to personal development of my soft skills, such as people skills, and interacting with our sponsors and the media — but most of all, I really enjoy helping people. This year will allow me to really focus on helping people with disabilities. We are just one of eleven Dream Teams at Delft TU and we all share a facility called the Dream Hall where we can work on our projects. All the teams are working on some kind of vehicle. Project March is the only team making an exoskeleton to help paraplegics stand up and walk again and give them back full mobility.
Project March “pilot” Ruben de Sain at Cybathalon event
Warner: How did this team get started and how did you choose to design and build an exoskeleton?
De Lange: Project March was founded about two and a half years ago by Eiso Vaandrager who found students that were committed and enthusiastic about doing this work. He created the assignments and teams and recruited students.
Warner: Why do you think this is a good project for students since several commercial companies are already pursuing this technology?
De Lange: We are students in R&D so we can innovate quickly. We can build one exoskeleton per year since we aren't a company that has commercial requirements and restrictions. We do, however, need partners in order to realize a new exoskeleton every year, which is only possible through their generosity and support.
Ruben de Sain navigating balancing challenge
Also, students are so dedicated! Out of our team of twenty-two people, nineteen have given up a year of studies to work full-time at the Dream Hall. While we are a technical team, we wanted to augment our education with more practical skills. There are some people on the team who have paraplegic family members, so this project has very personal meaning for them.
Warner: Have you had any commercial companies approach the team to acquire the technology you’ve developed?
De Lange: We did have some companies that wanted to help us go commercial — but we said “No, sorry.” We’ve decided to stay at R&D and at a student level for at least five years or more. Being a young team, we still have a lot to innovate outside of the constraints of a commercial business. We also challenge commercial companies to reach higher by using students’ bright minds and new ideas.
Warner: I noticed that your team participates in a competition. Will you tell us more about that, please?
Proud Project March students cheering on their pilot, Rueben
De Lange: Yes, we have an end of the year competition called the Cybathlon, which is like the Paralympic bionic games. There are both academic and commercial teams. There are two student teams that competed at the Cybathlon Experience: Project MARCH and Twiice. The big competition, Cybathlon, will take place in 2020. Between the four year events, there are the Cybathlon Experience events. In the last Cybathlon in October 2017, there were three exoskeleton teams in 2016 and we came in 2nd — over a commercial team called ReWalk.
Warner: What are the main goals you have when beginning a new build foran exoskeleton, and what is entailed in the build cycle to get you prepared for competition?
De Lange: Our overall vision is to give full mobility back to people with a spinal cord injury to increase their quality of life. As far as the competition goes, each year we choose a person to be our “pilot” who wears and operates the exoskeleton. Not only do they compete, they also help co-create and inform our design decisions. Our current pilot is Sjaan Quirijns who is a strong para athlete who comes to Project March about every month to give us feedback on our designs.
Exoskeleton in sitting pose
In August 2017, we started brainstorming for our new design and asked ourselves what we could accomplish in one year’s time — as well as what we can do in the future. After that, we began the design followed by the production phase. Next, we entered the assembly phase in which we created all the subassemblies. Finally, we assembled the whole exoskeleton. By mid-May we will complete the final build followed by testing and debugging. We will conduct a walk-in the-air-test in which we suspend the exoskeleton and let it walk continuously. We then test it on a person without a spinal cord injury to ensure it works properly and has a good gait. Finally, we will train with our pilot, Sjaan, for three months. There is a lot of debugging and pace training for Sjaan during this period.
The Cybathlon Experience is at the end of September in Dusseldorf, Germany at the Rehacare. Healthcare companies come to show assistive devices.
Warner: How many people are on the electrical sub-team and how many boards are in the exoskeleton?
De Lange: We have three members on the electrical team. There are PCBs in the backpack, on the bones, hip, ankle and knee joints. There are thirty circuit boards in all.
Warner: What is the frame made of?
De Lange: The frame is aluminum along with the joints to make them light and strong. The covers for the joint covers are 3D printed plastic parts, as well as the riser to support her torso.
Exoskeleton in standing position
Warner: How do you find pilots?
De Lange: We have a relationship with a clinic that helps people who are paraplegics. The ReWalk exoskeleton is there and people use this exoskeleton to train. Walking upright has many positive health benefits. Our pilots need to be physically strong and mentally strong and prepared for many ups and downs. This contribution by our pilots has really helped push the technology forward as a whole. Sjaan has rowed for years, rolled in chairs for marathons, and many other physical activities and she is so happy to help.
Warner: Lastly, Robbert, can you share what you’ve added to this year’s new exoskeleton?
De Lange: Because of Sjaan’s injury in her lower back, we have added risers to help stabilize her torso. We have also added tailbone protection by adding some support points. The ankle joints can now move actively and independently which helps with balance and the walking pattern. We have also added a variable step size while walking and a new input device in crutches (not watches like commercial companies). It didn’t make sense to us that the pilot would have to reach to their wrist while trying to walk.
Robbert De Lange, Acquisition and PR for Project March
Warner: Well, all of us here at Altium are so proud to support the amazing work your team is doing at Project March. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the details with us and our readers!
De Lange: Thank you, Judy. It was my pleasure. Thank you for your support!
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