Robotic assistant can help patients on their rehabilitation path



A physiotherapist's work is based on a combination of manual and mental tasks.

While some of these duties – like repeated manipulations of limbs and muscles – are physically demanding, the assessment of a patient's condition pairs knowledge and experience with quantitative measurements.

Now a new robot is making physiotherapists' work a lot lighter by acting as an assistant and improving the quality and quantity of the rehabilitation path.

Physiotherapist robot Hunova was devised by Italian scientists at Genova's Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) and launched on the market last May. It features three main elements: a mechanical chair, a balance platform and a computer screen.

Simone Ungaro is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Movendo Technology, an off-shoot of IIT devoted to the application of robotic technologies to the rehabilitation process. He says Hunova supports the recovery of patients with injuries as well as the elderly and can be applied to different medical fields.

"The robot understands the profile, the biomechanics of the patient. That is in the measurements. And the robotic itself, it can then actively help the patient to make certain movements and regain motor control or solve the pathology in orthopedics, neurology, geriatrics, also in sports," Ungaro explains.

Hunova helps therapists perform two functions: evaluation and rehabilitation exercises.

Carlo Sanfilippo is Muovendo Technology's Chief Operating Officer and one of the company's co-founders. He explains how Hunova works in tandem with therapists:

"The machine features a wide variety of sensors that are able to measure position, muscular strength, power and joint range of motion anywhere in the body. These measurements are then compared with parameters taken from healthy individuals.”

"By relying on this machine-based assessment a physiotherapist can very easily evaluate a patient's performance; he can then identify and choose the best path, the best rehabilitation process for that specific pathology and rely on all the exercises and rehabilitation protocols that are stored inside the machine."

The robot also helps with exercises that are part of the rehabilitation process. Hunova can impart more than 160 exercises to patients who carry them out while sitting on the mechanical chair or moving their lower limbs on the balance platform.

Workout sessions are shown on a video screen directly connected to the platform and chair. Patients are prompted to move according to drawings and figures that appear on-screen.

Sanfilippo says the robot is particularly helpful in relieving physiotherapists at the end of the day, when they tend to be most tired.

Thanks to its ability to take measurements with mathematical precision, Hunova can enhance a rehabilitation performance, Ungaro adds.

Still, physiotherapists remain in control of the rehabilitation process and make the ultimate decisions on a patient's treatment, Ungaro says. There shouldn't be any anxiety over the robot stealing work from physiotherapists in the future.

"This threat about robotics replacing human beings is not applicable in this case. It's actually making his job easier because there's less manual activity, less stress, also because patients are enjoying rehabilitation."

Hunova costs 100,000 euros (about 116,000 US dollars) – Movendo Technology executives say they've already sold several units in Italy and are currently planning to expand to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the United States.

Robotics engineer Jody Saglia was the first to come up with the idea of Hunova while working on an ankle rehabilitation machine at IIT.

Saglia is Muovendo Technology's Chief Technical Officer and a company co-founder. He says other research centers and companies have devised similar physiotherapy robots in the United States, Switzerland, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world, but Hunova is one of the few that can assist a therapist throughout the entire rehabilitation process and not just perform a single task.

The Hunova team is still working at improving the machine – the goal is to widen the range of exercises and functions.

Eventually Saglia foresees the creation of a physiotherapy device that could even be worn by patients.

Hunova was created after a testing period of almost six years, during which trials were conducted in physiotherapy centers and clinics. Scientists were able to fine-tune the robot and adjust it to respond to different medical needs.

However physiotherapist Alessandro Mannucci cautions about the machine's limits.

Mannucci has an over 20 years of experience as a physiotherapist in Rome; he praises Hunova's ability to conduct objective and accurate assessments, but says ultimately what makes a difference in the rehabilitation process is the irreplaceable human ability to evaluate patients' progress, needs and chart the best course of action for their health.

"This is a task performed by a simulator; real life is something else. In my experience the use of a simulator – albeit reliable and useful for providing important data – doesn't always yield results in the real world."