Former Tesla Engineer Develops Exoskeleton to Help a Friend Move Again


In a recent story, Quartz reports on the unusual work of Sam Huynh. When she was an engineering student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Huynh stood out from the crowd. She was the child of refugees, queer, and a woman in a field dominated by men. Her relentless work ethic also attracted attention. She secured an internship at SpaceX in her early 20s and then went on to work for Tesla as a design engineer. Despite being on a conventional path to success, Huynh left her job at Tesla in 2012 to pursue something closer to her heart.

Specifically, she began designing a high-tech exoskeleton for paralyzed people. She felt inspired to shift her focus when her former RIT classmate and close friend Taylor Hattori was injured in a dirt bike accident. He was paralyzed from the chest down, but Huynh was determined to help him use his limbs again. After returning to school to earn her Master’s degree in materials engineering, she got to work designing a robotic body suit as part of her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California.

The exoskeleton is meant to allow those with paralysis to move independently. Pneumatic “muscles” powered by air pressure control the suit in an organic way that resembles how the body moves. Electrical signals from the wearer’s own muscles trigger actions; flexing the pectorals, for example, activates motion in the forearm portion of the body suit. The fancy gear is more than a way for users to get around. Huynh also intends for it to be a form of physical therapy that helps patients regain the mobility they lost.

Her design is built around the widely held theory of neuroplasticity, which states that the brain is capable of rewiring itself based on thoughts and movements. That means if part of the brain is hurt in an accident, like the part responsible for controlling arm movements, it’s possible for the brain to form new circuits that perform some of those lost functions.

Getting to that point requires diligence, and exoskeletons provide patients a way to practice on their own without solely relying on a physical therapist for help. The exoskeleton Huynh is designing at USC is still a work-in-progress, but her long-term goal is to build a device that gets wearers to the point where they no longer need to use it. “I know how much Taylor would hate to be reliant on something that wasn’t himself,” Huynh told Quartz. “I don’t want people to have to be stuck in my apparatus: I want them to use it so they can learn how to reuse their own bodies.”

Huynh is hardly the first person to think of building a suit that lets paralyzed people walk again. A concept for a “pneumatic bodyframe” controlled by electrical signals in the brain was first proposed by H. Wangenstein in 1883. Exoskeletons controlled by the wearer have since become a reality, but they can usually cost anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000. Hunyh made sure her product would be accessible to as many people as possible. In total, the materials used to construct her suit cost a few hundred dollars. Her current set-up only controls the upper limbs, but she plans to eventually design a suit for the whole body.

[h/t Quartz]

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

The Force Field Cloak
This Glowing Blanket Is Designed to Ease Kids' Fear of the Dark
The Force Field Cloak
The Force Field Cloak

Many kids have a security blanket they bring to bed with them every night, but sometimes, a regular blankie is no match for the monsters that invade their imaginations once the lights are off. Now there’s a glow-in-the-dark blanket designed to make children feel safer in bed, no night light required.

Dubbed the Force Field Cloak, the fleece blanket comes in several colorful, glowing patterns that remain invisible during the day. At night, you leave the blanket under a bright light for about 10 minutes, then the shining design will reveal itself in the dark. The glow lasts 8 to 10 hours, just long enough to get a child through the night.

Inventor Terry Sachetti was inspired to create the blanket by his own experiences struggling with scary nighttime thoughts as a kid. "I remember when I was young and afraid of the dark. I would lie in my bed at night, and my imagination would start getting the best of me," he writes on the product's Kickstarter page. "I would start thinking that someone or something was going to grab my foot that was hanging over the side of the bed. When that happened, I would put my foot back under my blanket where I knew I was safe. Nothing could get me under my blanket. No boogiemen, no aliens, no monsters under my bed, nothing. Sound familiar?"

The Force Field Cloak, which has already surpassed its funding goals on both Indiegogo and Kickstarter, takes the comfort of a blanket to the next level. The glowing, non-toxic ink decorating the material acts as a gentle night light that kids can wrap around their whole body. The result, the team claims, is a secure feeling that quiets those thoughts about bad guys hiding in the shadows.

To pre-order a Force Field Cloak, you can pledge $36 or more to the product’s Indiegogo campaign. It is expected to start shipping in January 2018.


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