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Wearable robots help soldiers lift heavy objects, disabled walk

Wearable robots help soldiers lift heavy objects, disabled walk

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New bionic suits are helping the disabled walk and soldiers carry 200 pounds over mixed terrain. Someday, they could be used by the disabled in everyday life.

We use machines to help us with physical labor all the time.

But what if we wore the machines and they helped us power through everyday movements like lifting heavy objects or walking?

That's what several companies are now creating: bionic suits that can, for instance, help prevent injuries in soldiers as they lift heavy objects, or help overcome disabilities in people who are paralyzed.

The cost of such suits is decreasing and their battery life improving -- allowing these science fiction visions to to become closer to commercial reality, and to one day extend their reach from rehabilitation centers to malls or forest trails.

“The dream at the end of the day is be able to walk into a sporting goods store, like an REI, and pick up an exoskeleton,” Russ Angold, a founder and the chief technology officer of one bionic suit maker, Ekso Bionics, told The New York Times. “They’re like the jeans of the future.”

How they work

A suit by Ekso that helps the disabled walk again is comprised of mechanical braces that wrap around the legs and electric muscles that power walking. A computer on the wearer's back controls the suit, and the arms hold a pair of crutches that the Times says look like "futuristic ski poles."

When, say, the crutch on the right side, touches the ground, little motors propel the left leg forward. The suit weighs 50 pounds, is made of aluminum and titanium, and is powered by batteries that last for three hours. Disabled people can't yet use the suits independently, so a physical therapist must supervise. So far, the company reports that hundreds of people have walked in the suit without falling.

The company began shipping exoskeletons for physical therapy back in February; 15 rehab centers are using them, and each costs $140,000 plus $10,000 for an annual service contract. The latest version of the suits not only helps people walk again but acts as a physical therapy machine, challenging patients to walk with different levels of difficulty.

When a patient first learns to walk with the suit, the therapist can set the step length and speed, and the therapist presses a button in order to trigger each step. The next level allows the patient to trigger his or her own steps with via buttons on the crutches. The most advanced mode allows the patient to take a step just by shifting weight.

Applications

Already, such suits are helping the military.

In 2010, Raytheon released a suit for soldiers that works to prevent injuries from heavy lifting. In fact, Ekso was originally financed by the military. It collaborated with the University of California, Berkeley, and the military contractor Lockheed Martin to create a wearable robot called the Hulc, which gives soldiers the ability to carry up to 200 pounds of equipment over mixed terrain.

If they become even more lightweight, powerful and affordable, the suits may one day be used by the disabled in everyday situations such as around the home.

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via: The New York Times

photo: Ekso Bionics

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure