Australia’s first robotic gym helps sick kids find their feet

By Melissa Keogh

Australia’s first robotic gym at the Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital (WCH) is helping sick kids get back on their feet.

After launching almost a year ago, the Centre for Robotics and Innovation is helping children and adolescents with neurological disorders and injuries, including brain injuries, cerebral palsy and spina bifida, regain movement.

Experts say the state-of-the-art centre, which was funded by the Little Heroes Foundation, could eventually lead to a drop in hospital admission times.

The equipment exposes children to a higher number of repetitive movements per session but without the associated costs of a therapist’s time.

The robotic therapy gym is the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere and features equipment which improves movement and hand-eye co-ordination in young people.

The ‘lokomat pro’ is a high-tech robotic treadmill that manipulates leg movement, helping children to learn to walk again.

The determined Tanna Saunders uses the cutting-edge robotic technology.

The determined Tanna Saunders uses the cutting-edge robotic technology.

The machine supports the user’s body while allowing their legs to move in a walking motion, creating new messages in the brain.

The ‘armeo spring’ is another robotic device involving game-like tasks which improve arm and hand strength and movements such as reaching and grasping.

A third tool – the ‘dynavision’ – was the robotic centre’s final major installation and was funded with the help of the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of SA (PQSA).

The Robotics and Innovation Centre is used by young people who have neurological injuries or disorders.

The Robotics and Innovation Centre is used by young people who have neurological injuries or disorders.

The peak spinal cord injury body contributed $30,000 towards the dynavision, a tool originally developed for athletes to boost visual awareness and hand-eye co-ordination.

Robotics and Innovation Centre physiotherapist Chris Innes-Wong says the feedback on the high-tech equipment has been “fantastic”.

“Children love the robotic therapy, particularly the games,” Chris says.

“The games are exciting so it makes therapy fun and children are motivated to work to their full potential.

“In robotic therapy there is a higher number of repetitions of movement per session and families have reported functional improvements in arm use and walking.”

Head of research at the WCH’s Paediatric Rehabilitation Department, Professor Ray Russo, says children using the robotic equipment were motivated to “try harder”.

“The technology means that we can give a greater quantum of therapy, for example, total steps taken per session, as well as give timely feedback to assist the children in gaining the most from their rehabilitation session,” he says.

The centre is the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

The centre is the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

Over the next year, the centre will undertake a “critical analysis” of robotic therapy and investigate its impact on motor performance and how it might affect patients’ everyday life.

The Paediatric Rehabilitation Department says these findings could help determine how the machines can be used to achieve the best outcomes and could potentially lead to a drop in the amount of time children spend in hospital.

Since opening, the centre has also attracted the academic support of two university students who are running projects in the space.