At some point, most people know the annoyance of a routine that involves multiple flights of stairs: commuting, apartment buildings, work. For most, stairs are an inconvenience, but for people with physical disabilities, stairs are a major obstacle. They limit where you can live, for one. This week, researchers revealed their early work on a rather ingenious energy-recycling stair-system that’s part escalator, part springboard, and looks extremely strange.
On Wednesday, a group of researchers at Georgia Tech published the results of their research with energy-recycling stairs in the journal PLOS-One. The stairs, they say, could help primarily in private homes that help spare some of the daily rigor for arthritis patients, but could have applications outside of personal use.
Here’s how it works: A series of springs support each step, and as you step up, the step below you pulls your back foot up, saving you the energy of lifting it again:
When you go down, it cushions your descent so there’s less stress on your knee:
Right now, the researchers just have a two-step test platform set up, but initial test showed the system makes the user (you, the tired stair-climber) use up to 17.4 percent less effort going up, and up to 21.9 percent less effort (or “negative work”) going down. The whole thing cost about $1,000 to build, but the core components only cost about $50 per step, and the researchers thing for a full flight it’ll average out to about $100 per step. Their next goal is to build a full flight of stairs and start testing with subjects that aren’t healthy young adults, like their first crew.
Walking on the stairs, at first, is a bit weird, “like walking down a staircase with cushions on every step,” says Dr. Yun Seong Song, one of the researchers on the project. Seong Song says another participant described it like or “walking down a hill with soft soil and grass.”
“Going up, it feels like someone is pushing you up at your foot, as if your shoe is lifting you up from behind,” he says. “Yes it may be strange at first, but our users got used to it in just a few trials.”
Right now, only one person can use the stairs at a time (you can’t walk down them and up them at the simultaneously). But the researchers said future designs may have different capabilities. The aim is to create a system that can help people get around normally when mobility becomes more difficult, as an assisted measure instead of having to rely on wheelchair-accessible facilities or elevator access.
“Another aspect is a more practical and social one - that our stairs help older people remain in their communities for their own well-being,” Seong Song says. “Because our assistive stair modules can be place on stairs at your home easily to our assistive stairs, people with reduced mobility can stay at their own homes and enjoy their usual life rather than having to move to another place with no stairs.”
The researchers said they’re interested in finding partners to commercialize the work eventually.