When we get older, going up and down stairs often becomes a daunting task. Installing an escalator or stair-lift is a good solution, but a costly one, especially for those that need it for temporary purposes. Researchers at two universities may have taken a step in the right direction with a staircase that recycles its own energy while helping people ascend or descend.
Georgia Tech and Emory University created a device that can be placed directly on a set of stairs. Springs inside of each step move the person on an even level for the next one. The steps relieve pressure on ankles and knees by storing energy when descending and releasing it back to the walker when ascending.
According to a report from Georgia Tech, pressure decreases by 26 percent when walking down and it is “37 percent easier on the knee than using conventional stairs” when walking up. The process essentially recreates a consistent forward path for those that struggle to exert enough energy to go up and down, or for those that have ankle and knee problems.
Karen Liu, an associate professor at the university, explained how they came up with the process of the device recycling energy: “Unlike normal walking where each heel-strike dissipates energy that can be potentially restored, stair ascent is actually very energy efficient...I realized that going downstairs is quite wasteful. You dissipate energy to stop yourself from falling, and I thought it would be great if we could store the energy wasted during descent and return it to the user during ascent.”
Liu was one of the group members that worked on the full-length research paper on the project. She came up with the idea when with her mother, as she struggled walking up stairways. While some people use an ankle brace to similarly relieve pressure on joints, the additional step of having to put the device on and take it off can be frustrating, if not impossible, for some users. On the other hand, these special steps would stay on the stairway until they’re no longer needed.
One interesting part of the research was finding out that the project not only help people walk up, but it makes it safer to walk down them. Yun Seong Song, who was a former postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Tech, described how the steps are like “a cushion and brake,” and “the gentle downward movement alleviates work by the trailing ankle, which is what keeps you balanced and prevents you from falling too fast on normal stairs.”
At the moment, the stairway is still in its early stages. There are only two steps completed on the prototype and it only works with one person on the steps at a time. The potential is there for a much more affordable alternative to other in-home devices. It also helps in keeping people walking around. Those that rely on automatic devices can lose their mobility, so encouraging them to still walk up and down provides movement and exercise.