Background Active exoskeletons are promising devices for improving rehabilitation procedures in patients. In particular, exoskeletons implementing human limb's weight support (WS) are interesting to restore some mobility in patients with muscle weakness. Using active exoskeletons should result in accurate and generic WS but its effect on human motor control will critically depend on the position of the user within the exoskeleton and the characteristics of the control law.
Methods The present study aims at improving WS of the upper limb by providing a weight model considering joint misalignments and a control law including feedforward terms learned from a prior population-based analysis. Three experiments are respectively conducted on 29, 17 and 19 participants who performed posture maintenance and pointing movements with the forearm in the sagittal plane. The first two experiments were used to build an accurate WS control law and the third experiment was conducted to compare the effects of different WS control laws on human movement and assess their quality. During these three experiments, kinematic data and eletromyographic activity of elbow flexors and extensors were measured. Interaction forces were measured with a force/torque sensor placed between the human segment and the robot link.
Results The introduction of joint misalignments in the WS model allowed to drastically reduce the model errors in terms of weight estimation. The use of a feedforward architecture based on model and errors learned during experiments, coupled to a force feedback, allowed to reduce model tracking errors in both static and dynamic conditions during vertical movements, which induce substantial variations of gravitational torques. Overall, WS did not affect the general kinematic motion parameters of the participants and decreased the activity of antigravity muscles (flexors). However, WS increased the activation of extensors because weight is usually exploited by humans to accelerate a limb downward.
Conclusion A new weight compensation model considering joint misalignments was introduced and data showed their prominent role on WS accuracy and homogeneity. Three WS control laws were compared and results indicated that classical control methods were not sufficient to provide an accurate tracking of the weight model during dynamic vertical movements but that introducing simple feedforward terms learned from previous measures could significantly improve WS accuracy. Accordingly, WS reduced significantly activity in flexors in both static and dynamic conditions. Nevertheless, WS tended to increase the activity of extensors, which might be an important factor in a rehabilitation perspective. Indeed, if the present WS control law will be very helpful to allow patients accelerating the arm upward despite some muscle weakness, it may have an opposite effect when accelerating the arm downward. A partial WS controller could thus be more appropriate in rehabilitation applications.