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  5. A step forward: Assisted walking system wins national innovation award

A step forward: Assisted walking system wins national innovation award

View a video of the WALKS device.

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison mechanical engineering students has won the 2009-2010 National Innovation Award contest, sponsored by the Compressed Air and Gas Institute (CAGI), for a unique physical therapy device that promotes natural walking motions.

The device, called the Weight Assisted Lifting and Kinesthesia System (WALKS), is the culmination of several semesters of work by different groups of students in a senior engineering design course taught by Mechanical Engineering Professor Frank Fronczak and Assistant Professor Heidi-Lynn Ploeg.

In previous semesters, students designed the general system and constructed frame prototypes. During the fall 2009 semester, the award-winning team, which included students Axel Dahlberg, Jonny Jordan, Stefanie Knauf and Pat Verstegen, fabricated the final weight support system device by designing and building an automated air system.

The CAGI Innovation Award is an invitation-only program designed to honor undergraduate students who have created innovative designs using compressed air as the power source for machine tool applications, motion control devices, consumer products or other unique applications. The projects were judged in three areas, including innovation, marketability and presentation.

The award-winning WALKS device was designed and built by a team of mechanical engineering students.
The award-winning WALKS device was designed and built by a team of mechanical engineering students. Larger Image

The judges were impressed with the UW-Madison team’s entry because WALKS not only met the contest requirements, but “recognized the need and opportunity for this type of device to help reduce the escalating costs of health care,” according to the judging panel.

A WALKS user can get into the device harness from either a chair or the floor, which is convenient for people who can’t lift themselves into other walking devices without the help of a caretaker. The user then turns on the air system, which provides a lifting force to help patients overcome as much as 90 percent of their body weight. The air system allows the device to bounce in a way that mimics a normal walking rhythm, which is a unique approach as other air-supported walking systems provide a constant lifting force without allowing for vertical displacement (i.e. bouncing). Constant lifting forces impede a user’s natural walking gait.

“The system helps you gradually start using your legs again and build the muscles used in walking right away,” says Jordan. “This is a more natural form of rehabilitation.”

The CAGI award comes with a $2,500 prize, and the WALKS project also earned $8,000 for the Mechanical Engineering Department. The prize will help the team finish up their prototype.

Soon the team will turn over the device to Kinesiology Faculty Associate Tim Gattenby, who will use it in actual therapy sessions with patients. Gattenby has advised the team throughout the project and helped ensure WALKS is user-friendly.

“The project not only allowed our team to gain a wealth of experience in our field, but also to give back in the process, producing something that will hopefully improve the quality of life for many people as a result,” says Knauf.

Sandra Knisely