Biography of Elena García Armada Spanish engineer who leads the group that has developed the world’s first bionic exoskeleton for children. It is known worldwide.
Elena García’s wonderful life is much more than a brilliant curriculum. Many happy circumstances influenced her vital development: intelligence, innovative and working capacity, generosity, love for children, their parents and an environment that, at last, does not impede the participation of women.
Elena García Armada’s family and studies
Elena García Armada was born in Valladolid in 1971.
Her mother is a doctor of Physics, and a university professor.
Elena’s father was a professor of Electromagnetism. In 1986, she was one of the founders of the School of Telecommunications Engineering at the University of Cantabria.
Elena García remembers that during her childhood her parents never conditioned her the type of games she could have. Thus, she was able to play with dolls and with a gas station, when she asked for it. Her parents always taught her the why of things.
She studied at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Within engineering, she was attracted to robotics because it involves creating something from nothing and programming it.
In 1997, after joining the Center for Automation and Robotics (CAR), she began working on her doctoral thesis at this Center. She obtained the title of Doctor in Robotics, in 2002.
Five years later, in 2007, she entered the scientific scales of the CSIC.
Elena García Armada’s professional career
She began her professional career dedicating herself to designing robots for the industry.
Elena García is an admirer of Marc Raibert.
This man is the founder of Boston Dynamics, a robotics company known for having created the BigDog, Atlas, Spot and Handle robots.
Marc Raibert has been a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at MIT and an Associate Professor of Computer and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.
Elena García’s current professional career began in 2009, when she met Daniela, a girl who had become quadriplegic as a result of a traffic accident.
Her parents wanted a solution for Daniela, whose main problem was the inability to walk.
In that year, it was already possible to buy exoskeletons for paraplegic adults, but there was nothing for children.
It is not because it is more difficult to make small exoskeletons, but because it is difficult to control the movement of an exoskeleton to adapt to the complex symptoms of degenerative neurological diseases.
In these cases, each patient requires a different exoskeleton, adapted to their needs. The initial obstacles are basically scientific knowledge and advancement in technology.
Elena García worked as a researcher at the CSIC and, encouraged by the possibility of restoring mobility to Daniela, she accepted the challenge of leading the research group that created the world’s first exoskeleton that allowed children with tetraplegia or muscular atrophy to walk.
The team led by Elena García made the ATLAS prototype work; and they tested it with Daniela in the third year of her development, when the girl was nine years old.
Unfortunately it was not possible to provide an exoskeleton for Daniela, but it was she who alerted the need. The time that has elapsed during the process of technology transfer to the market has made her, now 16 years old, unable to access the pediatric exoskeleton, for children up to 10 years old.
The first prototype of the ATLAS exoskeleton was a 9 kg aluminum and titanium frame made up of cables, motors and various types of sensors that serve to decipher the child’s intentions and to assist him in the movements he wishes to make.
The big problem was that the exoskeleton could not be sold. It was a research prototype and did not comply with the medical device regulations.
Elena García turned her activity into exoskeletons
The good result achieved with the ATLAS exoskeleton raised hopes in the relatives of children with other types of pathologies such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).
This disease, which affects one in 10,000 babies in Spain, causes progressive muscle weakness. Children with SMA types 1 and 2 never get to walk. Marsi Bonics works with type 2.
From the exoskeleton designed for Daniela, Elena García’s work focused on making devices aimed at improving the mobility of children suffering from degenerative neuromuscular diseases.
She dedicated her efforts to founding a company that could be effective in helping those children. Her idea became concrete in Marsi Bionics.
Marsi Bionics emerged in September 2013, as a spin-off company from the Center for Automation and Robotics (CAR).
The CAR is a mixed center between the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM).
Marsi Bionics was founded to share in society the results of research on robotic aids to locomotion and gait rehabilitation.
It is focused on improving the performance of exoskeletons for private use at home. Although in the future it will be possible to make a particular and domestic use of this technology, for the moment it will be used in specialized rehabilitation and physiotherapy clinics.
The innovative high-tech character of Marsi Bionics has earned the trust of the European Commission and other public and private organizations.
Elena García has two daughters and her care is an added dedication with which she is more than satisfied. Like all mothers, she has had to squeeze the hours of the day and it has been a lot more work for her. But, she says she has enjoyed the time she has dedicated to her daughters.
Her work rhythm is vertiginous, but it goes in her way of being; She is very active and is one of the women who need to move forward.
One of the first projects in which Elena García contributed was SILO 4, a 30-kilogram robot where the algorithm for improving control and adaptability of the robot to the field was tested.
This SILO 4 project was directed by Prof. Pablo González de Santos, the director of Elena García’s doctoral thesis. She contributed to the study of algorithms that improve the stability of walking robots in natural environments.
SILO 4 is intended for use in reconnaissance and disaster relief work. It can also be used to deactivate explosive mines.
The ATLAS 2020 exoskeleton
In the field of children’s exoskeletons, the most outstanding and awarded project has been ATLAS 2020.
It is made of aluminum and has a weight of twelve kilos, which the child does not notice because it is unloaded on the ground.
The ATLAS 2020 model is equipped with intelligent joints that allow for a more agile movement, since they interpret the child’s movements detecting which are desired and which are unwanted.
The ATLAS 2020 has long supports that adjust and adapt to the legs and trunk. In the joints, a series of motors imitate the functioning of the muscle and provide the child with the strength he lacks to keep up and walk.
The system is completed by a series of sensors, a movement controller and rechargeable lithium batteries with five hours of autonomy.
The ATLAS 2020 robot was tested in 2016 and 2017 with children affected by spinal muscular atrophy.
Physiotherapists had scheduled activities designed to tone muscles like ball games, dart shooting, dancing, jumping.
The children left the exoskeletons without batteries, because they did not stop playing.
The ATLAS 2030 exoskeleton
After these encouraging results, Elena García and her team decided to develop an exoskeleton that children could use at home to carry out daily activities.
This new project was carried out by the company Marsi Bionics; It was financed by the “Fundación Mutua Madrileña”, and had the collaboration of the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid.
The new exoskeleton model was called ATLAS 2030 and was used experimentally by three children for two months.
The ATLAS 2030 device, now commercial, weighs 14 kilos and incorporates artificial muscles in the joints, which detect the intention of movement and provide gait.
During these months of trial, Elena García had the initial collaboration of the “Center for Early Home Care“, CIGAT, directed by Fernanda Jorge Silverio.
At the end of the first month, an improvement in the mobility of the arms, neck and legs of the three children was found. The increase in muscle strength and the number of functions that children could perform with the exoskeleton was also measured.
The muscular strength they measured had increased in the order of 100% and joint contractures had been reduced in all cases; they had even disappeared in some of them.
The ATLAS 2030 has already left the laboratory and is industrialized. A multicenter clinical evaluation remains to be completed between the Raymond Poincaré hospital in Paris and the La Paz University Hospital in Madrid.
Dr. Elena García and her team hope to finish this trial in the first half of 2020 and obtain the CE marking.
The certification process for these machines is very expensive. Having fewer resources forces you to move much slower. Elena García insists that these children’s illnesses are degenerative, and that every day counts for them.
However, these are results that are not statistically significant. Funding would be required to conduct a large-scale clinical study to demonstrate the effectiveness of ATLAS 2030.
At the Sant Joan de Déu Hospital in Barcelona, a copy of the ATLAS 2030 exoskeleton is already working.
European financing and industrial partner
The European Commission granted Marsi Bionics a grant of 1,700,000 euros, through a program called “Horizon 2020“.
The Higher Council for Scientific Research has become part of society, which represents significant support from the country’s main public research institution.
Once the Spanish Medicines Agency can certify that the exoskeleton is completely safe, that it has no side effects and meets all the requirements, it will be possible to market the exoskeletons as sanitary devices throughout the European Common Market.
Elena García’s goal is that all children in wheelchairs have the opportunity to use them.
Prizes awarded to Elena García Armada
- Innova 2014 First Prize.
- Best entrepreneurial project. CEPYME Award 2015.
- Best Sanitary Technology. 2016 ABC Health Awards.
- Named among the 10 brightest scientific people of 2016.
- 2017 Women to Follow Award.
- Madrid Gold Medal 2018.
- Hypatia-Women in Science Award 2019, for the Scientific Career.
- Talgo Award for Excellence in Women in Engineering, First edition 2019.
- Madrid Excellent Award for Health Research 2019.
- Elena García has been a member of the Jury of the Princess of Asturias Awards for Scientific and Technical Research since 2019.
At the end of this brief biography, in the absence of other biographical data (childhood, youth, family) it is easy to deduce that Elena García possesses intelligence, tenacity, leadership, ease of relating, a great love for children and solid ethical principles surely promoted by the people in your environment: parents, family, friends and teammates.
Interview in the newspaper El Mundo