17 | NOV | 2019
Mexican robot helps patients walk again

Mexican robot helps patients walk again

Mexico City
Guadalupe Jimarez
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Roki was designed by engineers Norberto Velázquez, Daniel Izar, and José Antonio Ramírez to help people with disabilities

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Jesús Aviña, known as Chuy for his friends, had an accident in 2015 while he was repairing his house. The roof of his house fell on him and since then he could no longer move his legs due to a spinal cord injury, but he never lost faith in being able to stand up again.

He is friends with Norberto Velázquez, who in 2010 began the construction of Roki, a robot that helps patients with paraplegia walk. Chuy became the first candidate to test the device.

After three months of use, Jesús Aviña asserts that he started to perceive a sting in the low part of his abdomen, where he previously had no feeling, it was the need to go to the restroom. “It was like a miracle,” he says.



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Roki was created in a “secret” laboratory of Guadalajara’s Panamerican University (UP). The robotic suit supplies the necessary strength to walk with the aid of a walker and supports up to 101 kilograms.

Five years ago, Norberto designed the first of five versions of the gadget, whose weight was of 56 kilograms. Now, that first model belongs to the devices that ornament the laboratory where “everything is possible.” The second model was slow but able to lift a person. Chuy was the one who tested it and was able to “walk” with this robot.

Trial and error has been the philosophy of these engineers. Chuy sees in this gadget the possibility of feeling fulfilled and happy: “Seeing people in the eyes and at their height changes you.”

In 2019, Roki became a solid hope, for it is available in a clinic in Guadalajara called SIGUE: Effective Physical Therapy, and it is an aid in the rehabilitation of over 35 persons.

Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi) informs that, in Mexico, there are 2.6 million people unable to walk. This is the most common disability in our country.

For its part, the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (Conapred) adds that the main causes for this condition are diseases (38.5%), old age (31%), congenital conditions (15%), and accidents (12%).
That is why Roki wants to be an opportunity to improve the life quality of those who are in a wheelchair.


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From fiction to purpose
“The project started being a hobby, however, little by little it became a life purpose since I have several friends on wheelchair,” asserts Norberto, who is a mechatronic engineer by the UP, leader of this cause and robots passionate.

The name of this device is inspired in Rocky Balboa, a character played by Sylvester Stallone. The team says that the film became a driving force to continue “fighting for the cause:” helping people with disabilities.

In 2010, with the help of UP, Norberto founded the company Roki Robotics to commercialize this device. He defines it as a first step to treat people with disabilities equally.

Daniel Izar, chief of Electronic Design of the company, met Norberto five years ago as an intern at UP. He asserts that social engagement leads them to improve the robot to arrive at the current prototype.



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Then, José Antonio Ramírez joined the team. He is in charge of the area of Mechanical Design. He is a student of the José Mario Molina Pasquel y Henríquez Technological Institute.

Norberto explains that he chose the members of the team for this project due to their skills and knowledge in engineering.

Other members collaborate in the company, such as Priscila Juárez, head of the area of Administration and Finances.

Distance is not an obstacle to help, for, from Croatia, Arturo Montúfar Arreola is in charge of designing the electronic card that contains the software that enables the operation of the robot.


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What is Roki?
The device is made up of a backpack, that contains the battery and the computer that controls the robot. Its function is to give back support. From the backpack come out a belt and a pair of handles that end in 3D prints in the shape of vertical bars that work as legs.

Each of the bars has three harnesses to hold the limbs of the patient. The first is at the thigh level; another one is at the knee level, and the third is located at the ankles.

Moving with this model is possible thanks to four engines especially made for the device, which are located at the hips and knees of the patient. The device is operated through a control located in the walker or the cane.

It has two versions: the first is called Clinic, which is adjustable to the height of who uses it and has a medical purpose; it weighs 28 kilograms and it has a special control in the back of the robot that allows the therapist to control the movements and it gives greater security to the patient.

The second is known as Customized and it is adapted for daily situations. It weighs 18 kilograms and, so far, 50 persons are using the prototype.


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Norberto comments that this kind of robots weighs from 22 to 28 kilograms; nevertheless, it was possible to make Roki lighter through 3D printing and a body of carbon fiber.

Daniel explains: “We know the obstacles faced by a person with paraplegia. Besides being light, Customized Roki is portable.” This model is divided into five parts, each bar is separated in two, and the backpack is removable to transport it easily.

The robot is connected through a smartwatch – already included – to the app called Roki App and from there different functions can be monitored: sitting, moving forward, standing up, among others, and it is in charge of correcting mistakes.



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“If there is an anomaly, the robot stops, protects the person and it restarts to prevent accidents,” commented the CEO of the company.

Another of the characteristics of this device is how easy it is to adjust it. In robots of this kind, they say, it could take up to half an hour to adapt it, but Roki needs only five minutes to do so and requires no tools.

Zeltzin Sinaí, who is 12 years old, is the youngest patient to have used Roki and it was possible thanks to the lightness of the device. The oldest person to have used Roki is 77 years old. Both have a cervical injury, but they can move their arms and lean on a walker, which makes them able to use the robot.

On average, those who have walked with this prototype are between 20 to 40 years old. Inegi details that 8 out of 10 persons with disabilities are over 29 years old.


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Get it over and done with
Among laughter, the team swears that a workday at Roki Robotics is of “35 hours,” for it is common for them not to sleep due to a presentation or tournament. Toño says that the main issue they faced during the creation process was to obtain funding in private and public institutions. “We have had to knock many doors,” he remembers.

Thus, they say that each competition is a challenge. An instance is their participation at Cybathlon 2016 in Switzerland – the first Bionic Olympics in history – for they had no money and the engines started to fail two days before the competition. Nevertheless, in less than 24 hours, Daniel and Toño fixed the problem.

For his part, Norberto asserts that all of them invest full time to the design and improvement of this device: “It is our only job, that pushes us to improve it and give our best. There is no other option.”

The team seeks the certification of the Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risks (Cofepris), which involves a process of at least two years.

Creators say that James Lombille, an American living in Rivera de Chapala, Jalisco, and who tested the previous prototypes, was able to obtain a little sensitivity in the legs after four months of therapy.

“What we want is to bring hope and give them a better quality of life to them and their families,” asserts Daniel, who also sees an opportunity for users to feel accepted and with better self-esteem.

The 2017 National Survey on Discrimination (Enadis) confirms that 48% of people with a disability has been a victim of some type of segregation.

Roki Robotics’ CEO says that it is important to make this kind of technology cheaper, for in the U.S., other robots like Roki cost the same as a house in Mexico, that is, approximately MXN $1.7 million.

In that sense, the price of the Customized model is of MXN $400 thousand and the Clinic prototype costs MXN $750 thousand.

According to Inegi, in 6.14 million Mexican homes lives a person with a disability: 50% has low income and their biggest expense is food, rent, and medical attention compared to other families. Such an expense can be three times higher than in homes without members in that condition, according to Conapred.

The team agrees that the biggest satisfaction is to see the fruit of their work, “The smile of persons are worth everything,” they say.

“Research and technological progress must go hand in hand to help people. The common good must go before personal [interest],” concludes Daniel.


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