Rethinking Healthcare

Wearable robot helps paraplegics walk; exoskeleton hits the market

Wearable robot helps paraplegics walk; exoskeleton hits the market

Posting in Technology

No more wheelchairs! An algorithm responds to gestures, making use of 15 sensors: as weight is shifted on to one crutch, the leg on the opposite side steps forward. At rehab clinics this year.

Goodbye wheelchairs? The new Ekso Bionics exoskeleton hits the market this year. Whirrrrr…

"We took the idea of the external skeleton, and we added nerves in the form of sensors and motors that represent your muscles and computers that represent your brain," says Ekso’s Eythor Bender.

When you put on the suit, you’re essentially strapping yourself to a sophisticated robot (pictured).

  • Its adjustable titanium frame encases the legs, with straps around the waist, shoulders, and thighs. It supports its own 44-pound weight with skeletal legs and footrests.
  • A computer with 2 batteries sits as a backpack, powering 4 electromechanical motors that propel the legs.
  • An intelligent algorithm responds to gestures, making use of 15 wireless sensors: as weight is shifted on to one crutch, the leg on the opposite side steps forward accordingly.
  • It takes care of the calculations needed for each step. All you need to do is balance your upper body, shifting your weight as you plant a walking stick on the right. A physical therapist uses a remote control to signal the left leg to step forward. It’s a little slow and jerky at first.

In a later model, you’ll have complete control: the walking sticks will have motion sensors to communicate with the legs. It’ll also be able to figure out more complicated movements, like climbing stairs and sitting down.

“This is the true integration of man and machine," Bender says. They’ve got a video of the contraption here.

Ekso might be able to succeed where many others failed, because their powered device does most of the labor for the patient. Other inventions – from stiff air-filled garments to devices that electrically stimulate the muscles – all proved too difficult for patients to operate. They were completely exhausted after just a few steps.

The company – based out of a warehouse in Berkeley (Go Bears!) – will start selling the suit to rehab clinics in the US and Europe, to allow patients with spinal cord injuries to train with the device under doctor supervision.

This could potentially be something they could use to strengthen their muscles so they might be able to eventually walk on their own. The company expects to test its physical therapy model soon on patients with other diagnoses, like multiple sclerosis and stroke.

It’s about $100,000 right now. Ten top US rehab clinics have already signed up for the first batch of production units.

By the middle of 2012, the company plans to have a model for at-home physical therapy, and by 2014, it plans to release a personal model that can be used for everyday living.

Via IEEE Spectrum’s Eliza Strickland and Wired.

Image: Ekso Bionics

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure