April 28, 2011

Sloan Deumite didn't think he would ever walk again after breaking his neck at 17 in a boating accident. Deumite became a quadriplegic, a person paralyzed in all four limbs.

Now 40, he has hope — a group of University engineering seniors are designing and constructing an exoskeleton for their senior design project, titled "Walk Again."

"Walk Again" is a collaborative project with seven mechanical, two electrical and one computer engineering senior, said Patrick Vocke, a mechanical engineering senior working on the project.

The members of the group are mechanical engineering seniors David Bray, Steven Cobb, Blake Conzelmann, Mark Korinek, Evan Ledet, Vocke and Rachel Yates; electrical engineering seniors Brittany Culotta and William LaFleur; and computer science engineering senior Patrick Sibley.

Deumite's father, Norman Deumite, suggested the project to the College of Engineering and is the sole sponsor.

Yates said exoskeletons exist for paraplegics, people paralyzed in their lower body, but not for quadriplegics because they have trouble balancing.

Norman Deumite said he believed a group of students could construct a new type of exoskeleton for quadriplegics by combining a gyroscopic balance system with the current type of exoskeleton designed for paraplegics.

"It's a very sophisticated project," he said. "I'm very impressed with the work the students have done."

Deumite said he set aside about $35,000 for the project but is not sure how much the team has used.

He said he graduated from the University in mechanical engineering in 1958 and has participated on boards, donated and sponsored projects at LSU.

"I just do whatever I can for LSU," he said.

Deumite said Sloan is excited about the project.

He said Sloan can stand and walk a few hundred yards with a heavy-duty walker, but the new exoskeleton could greatly improve his motor skills.

"Walk Again" will take a minimum of three student groups to complete, Yates said.

The current group is focusing on the balancing aspect of the exoskeleton, and later groups will concentrate on the walking aspect, Vocke said.

Vocke said the exoskeleton has no knee joints because people bend more using their hips and ankles.

The exoskeleton will use a back plate for support, plates under each foot and a bracket around the hip, Vocke said.

Vocke said pressure sensors on the plates under the feet will detect and correct weight distribution, and the exoskeleton will use hydraulic cylinders to balance and move.

Yates said the hydraulics work in pairs for balance, but they move individually to walk. She said this is just one of the challenges the group has encountered, but her group is mostly concerned with balancing.

"It gets really tricky when you start to move," Vocke added.

Vocke said the group has to assemble a version of the exoskeleton by their deadline on April 15.

Bray said the group is working well as a team.

"We're all coming together and working hard," Bray said.

Marcio de Queiroz, associate professor of mechanical engineering and "Walk Again" adviser, said exoskeletons are used in the military to carry 150- to 200-pound loads.

Queiroz said the exoskeleton is designed as a double-inverted pendulum with the ankle and the waist as the two points, or joints.

"That's a difficult control problem to model," he said.

Queiroz said he meets with the group for an hour weekly, and Deumite meets with them once every two weeks.

The group went to the mall with Sloan and his father to watch Sloan walk and assess his abilities, Norman Deumite said.

Vocke said meeting and talking with Sloan made the project more personal.

"We've been to dinner with the sponsor and his son, who this is for. We met him. We know him. We see him around at the football games," Vocke said.

Vocke said the experience is rewarding because he knows someone it will help.

"It's definitely a good feeling," Vocke said. "I'm glad for the opportunity to work on something like this."

Deumite said he was impressed and happy with the group's effort.

"I love their work ethic," he said. "They just seem so eager to help."

Deumite said he will be at the group's final presentation to see the result.


*This article was written by Meredith Will and originally published in The Daily Reveille on Wednesday, April 13. To view the article, click here.*

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