Anklebot is here to help the chronically sprained (after it teaches stroke victims to walk again)

ankelbot super therapeutic robot ankles anklebot mit

Anatomically speaking, all this walking, running and jumping humans do is no easy trick. The body is a complicated system, and the ankle – a critical joint for shock absorption and propulsion – is among its more distinctive structures. 

“It’s not anything like a simple joint,” says Neville Hogan, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “If you think, for example, of your elbow, it’s fairly well-described as a simple hinge. Your shoulder is more-or-less like a ball-and-socket joint. The ankle is nothing like that. It’s basically a collection of bones all moving relative to each other.”

One more vivid description Hogan uses? A “collection of pebbles wrapped inside elastic bands.” 

Still, despite its importance in locomotion, Hogan says the world was lacking measurements of “dynamic behavior” in the ankle – the stiffness and strength of the joint as the toes go up or down, or the foot rolls in and out. To help fill that void in understanding, Hogan and his colleagues at MIT’s Newman Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation developed the Anklebot. 

A robot mounted to a specially-designed knee brace that’s attached to a custom shoe, the Anklebot moves the foot in different directions according to a preset pattern. Electrodes measure the stiffness of the joint, allowing researchers to see points of strength and weakness in the ankle, and measure progress over time. Importantly, Hogan notes, the Anklebot is “highly backdriveable,” meaning it only helps the foot move when needed, and gets out of the way when not. 

Neville Hogan
Neville Hogan

Anklebot was developed as a rehabilitation tool for stroke victims and other patients forced to relearn the mechanics of walking, but it has shown value as a research tool because it provides a greater understanding of the ankle’s mechanics. The bot has led to unexpected discoveries, like the fact that the ankle’s side-by-side movements are entirely independent of its up-and-down movement. It has also formally measured what most people already assume, like the fact that the ankle is weakest when the foot rolls inward and the body’s weight is on the outside – that’s a sprained ankle, in normal person-speak. 

While Anklebot wasn’t developed with sports in mind and hasn’t been tested or applied specifically for athletes, Hogan believes both the machine and the information it has revealed could have real impact in athletics. First, he believes, it provides doctors, trainers, and physical therapists more information about the behavior of the ankle. Second, should injury occur, Anklebot’s success as a physical therapy device indicates it could also be helpful as a tool for athletes recovering from soft tissue injuries.

“That’s essentially what the Anklebot lets you do. It lets you provide a gentle interaction between the human and the machine, structured in a manner that will help with recovery,” he says. 

Hogan’s peers are beginning to acknowledge his work, too. Eric Perreault, a professor of biomechanical engineering and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern wasn’t a part of the study, but his intellectual eyebrows are raised by what the team at MIT has revealed about the ankle’s mechanics and the role of muscle activation, as well as the device’s value post-injury. 

“An intriguing extension of this work is that it may be possible to train individuals to activate their ankle musculature in a way that helps reduce the chance of injury,” Perreault says. “A more immediate benefit of the study is that it presents a method for quantifying the impact of existing rehabilitation therapies on the mechanical properties of the ankle.” 

Once more, in normal person-speak? Anklebot just might help athletes recover from, and even prevent, those pesky sprained ankles. 

Outdoors

These bike lights use the magic of magnetism to generate power

Magnetic Microlights are a new option for cyclists that use nothing more than magnets to generate power to illuminate a bike light that is bright, eco-friendly, and increases the safety of riders.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in November, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to ‘Dracula’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Emerging Tech

Stronger than steel, thinner than paper, graphene could be the future of tech

Since its discovery, graphene has set the research world on fire. What exactly is it, though, and what could it mean for the future of tech? Here's everything you need to know about what could be the next supermaterial to take center stage.
Gaming

The best HTC Vive games available today

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 25 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Smart Home

Row your way to a healthy bod with the CityRow Go connected rowing machine

Want the connected experience of a Peloton but dislike biking? You can now feel the burn of a cardio-busting rowing session from the comfort of your living room with the new CityRow Go connected home rowing machine.
Mobile

Here's a look at what's inside Fossil's Pop-up Shop in New York

Fossil has released its first-ever smartwatch featuring Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 3100. The Fossil Sport comes packed with a heart rate monitor, built-in GPS, NFC, and Google's latest version of Wear OS. Here's everything you need to know.
Health & Fitness

JLABS injects some tech into the medical industry

Innovating health care is expensive, risky, and complicated legally. One company is trying to remove these barriers with clever and altruistic approach.
Wearables

Check out 25 of the best Wear OS apps for your smartwatch

Looking for some ways to spruce up that new Android smartwatch of yours? Here are the best Wear OS apps to download and use with any Android smartwatch, including a few specially enhanced for Wear OS 2.0.
Health & Fitness

Withings new Pulse HR is a customizable, connected fitness tracker

Inspired by Withings first ever fitness tracker the Pulse, the new Pulse HR is updated with the latest in fitness tracker technology including smart notifications, 24/7 heart rate tracking, and more.
Mobile

New sensor from L’Oréal tracks UV exposure to keep your skin safe from the sun

L'Oréal has announced a new wearable sensor that attaches to your clothing and can track ultraviolet light. The sensor uses NFC instead of Bluetooth -- meaning it doesn't need a battery to work properly.
Emerging Tech

This startup will sequence your entire genome for free — but there’s a catch

Want to get your DNA sequenced but don’t want to shell out the hundred bucks or so to do so? A new startup called Nebula Genomics offers you the opportunity to have it done for free.
Emerging Tech

Warm up or cool down with the press of a button on the wrist-worn Embr

We review the Embr Wave, a personal heating and cooling wearable designed by a team of MIT engineers that’s now on Kickstarter. Our thoughts? It’s a little bit addictive.
Product Review

This featherweight Fossil might be the lean smartwatch you've been waiting for

Fossil has released its first-ever smartwatch featuring Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100. For $255, it comes equipped with a heart-rate sensor, built-in GPS, and more, but does the Fossil Sport live up to the hype? We take a closer look.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: A.I. selfie drones, ‘invisible’ wireless chargers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!