Maintaining mobility with ‘Smart Walker’

CORNELL (US)—An electronic button braking system that replaces bicycle-style squeeze brakes will make rolling walkers safer and easier to use.

Working with David Lipson, professor of engineering at Cornell University, biomedical engineering students have designed a better walker that can prevent slips, slides, and falls when a user grabs the handles.

Relying on handgrip sensors, the ‘Smart Walker’ starts in the braked position and low-strength users need only touch a button to electronically disengage the brake and begin moving.

Once a user removes hands from the handlebar, the walker automatically resets to the braked position.

The added stability and ease of operation for users with reduced hand strength promises to dramatically reduce accidental falls—a significant source of injury among the elderly with limited mobility.

The walker can further reduce injury among the elderly by encouraging a more active lifestyle.

The button braking system runs to a microprocessor, which sends information to a linear actuator that in turn pulls on a mechanical brake to make the wheels come to a complete stop, meaning the walker will brake safely for users with low strength or impairment in their hands.

The electrical model is “much simpler and easier for really anyone to use,” says Eli Einbinder, a Weill Cornell Medical College-affiliated psychiatrist, who has been a consultant on the project since its inception.

“The augmented walker appeared simple, but it also was a challenging design,” Lipson says.

“We had constraints on cost, weight, simplicity and several choices for which approach to use. This made it a terrific project because the students could look at many designs, with improvements in the subsequent years by a new team.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that by the middle of the 21st century, about 80 million Americans will be 65 or older. According to the group’s research, medical costs resulting from falls by the elderly are expected to approach $32.4 billion by 2020.

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chat6 Comments


  1. Bill Martin

    A speedometer cable used to cost about $3 and took about 15 minutes to change. Today, if the speedometer starts acting up, it costs over $200 just for the computer circuit board part, not to mention the 2 hours labor charge for removing most of the dashboard of your car to replace the board.

    So, now they want to add a computer chip braking system to a mechanical walker which is designed to prevent falls in the first place?? And who is going to replace the batteries or plug it in every night?

    Next they’ll come up with computer controlled, electronic devices to change the adult diapers!!

    I have a 93 yr old mother 3 blocks away in a nursing home that has low-strength hands and has a walker that she has been using for the past 3 years. She has never fallen once since starting to use this walker, and even with low-strength in her hands, she has no problem applying or locking the brakes.
    WHO did you test this device with??? Or is it just a bunch of youngish engineering students with a bright idea and no real-life experience???

  2. Joe Neels

    To commentor Bill Martin,

    Comparing every disabled senior who uses a walker to your mom’s exact disability level is like saying no one else needs glasses because I can see fine. If it was not for “youngish engineering students with a bright ideas”, you would not have been able to make your comment and email it to this article. You remind me of Dana Carvey’s charachter – The grumpy old man. Learn to embrace new technology.

  3. Bill

    “Joe Neels
    Jan 20, 2011 11:23
    To commentor Bill Martin,

    Comparing every disabled senior who uses a walker to your mom’s exact disability level is like saying no one else needs glasses because I can see fine. If it was not for “youngish engineering students with a bright ideas”, you would not have been able to make your comment and email it to this article. You remind me of Dana Carvey’s charachter – The grumpy old man. Learn to embrace new technology.”

    When you actually start CARING for an elderly, disabled person who grew up in the 1920’s, on limited income, with caregivers on limited income, come back and I’ll discuss it further.
    As I said: “real-life” experience.
    Engineers come up with these great ideas, get a grant proposal going, test a prototype out on a few elderly, yell EUREKA! WE’VE SOLVED ANOTHER PROBLEM! And then they turn to the next great thing.
    I’m on a limited income, driving a 21 year old Volvo full of little computer boards. Half of these things flash error messages at me all the time. One of them is the speedometer, which in 1991 was engineered on a computer board and replaced a $3 cable. NOW it will cost $120 just for the board, plus the labor to jerk out the dashboard to get at it.
    Tell ME how that makes life better.
    And I’m a retired Computer Consultant.
    Computer/Digital/ crap does not ALWAYS make life better. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD do something.
    I am NOT a Luddite by any means. I keep abreast of a lot of technology that DOES make my life richer and better. But I still make BBQ with wood, and maintain temperatures in the firebox by feel and experience. I have used digital thermometers, but then abandoned them because they actually removed a certain quality experience in my life. KISS!!!

  4. Margy Angle

    Where can Smart Walker be purchased? 7 8 2012?

  5. Emil

    As Bill says, computer/electronics is not always the solution, that is true.
    However, funny as it is, I’m currently working on a project (similar, but in a much larger scale, having much more abilities), that actually solve a lot more problems.
    And here I must say; you mention the Volvo, but you do realize that ‘modern cars’ have been modified with ABS and ESP, which is (for me at least) brilliant systems, that prevent accidents on a daily base.
    May be you do not see how nessecary it might be to actually implement small changes on a walker, but trust me, problems are there, and there are cheap solutions – and as time passes, they’ll be even cheaper!
    Eventually they would go for the 3$ you request, and when that happens, you’ll be heppy someone did give a damn about the problems.
    Im not native, and so this is the 3rd language I speak, hope I get the meaning correct though.


  6. Bill Martin

    Regardless, I am all FOR advancements in technology that make life safer or better.
    My comment(s) originally had more to do with the cost of maintaining or replacing electronics on a Walker. Walkers are really very basic structures. An aluminum frame with three sides, which fold. Two legs in front have tiny wheels, the two legs in back are bare, (or someone slips tennis balls over them so they “slide” easier.). Next advancement on that concept was a slightly pricier version, selling for upwards of $100 plus, based on the original idea, but with bicycle brakes, swivel wheels on the front or back for steering, and wheels on all four corners, (making it actually, more dangerous for people with balance and walking problems.) And a snazzy, sparkly paint job- like a bicycle.
    When the price of a walker goes from $25 to several hundred dollars by adding computer cards, electronics, and batteries and a sparkly paint job; then the whole deal becomes a matter of: is this thing any safer or better than the $25 version which someone with physical problems and possibly declining mental capabilities probably can’t afford or operate, really worth the effort? Or is it just a money maker for the mfg. to sell to family members who want to help, but don’t know how.
    I’m NOT saying that in some RARE cases this won’t be a viable solution for SOMEONE. Just not for the Nursing home or rehab folks I see around me every day in this apartment complex for retirees. I watched my Mother and the other inmates/neighbors in the nursing home for 6 very LOOOONG years, decline and die. I watched them fall, even with walkers of all stripes. Even the walkers with brakes and sparkly paint jobs.
    Before replying, please have actual experience with a family member who is declining rapidly in their final years, and you are ACTUALLY the one responsible for their care. OR you work in a nursing home and deal with these issues several times a day on a full-time basis.
    Without that, you are just not eligible to speculate and comment. Regardless of how many old folks tried out your computer/battery operated walker.
    Just because you CAN build something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD build it.

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