A Defense Department program to develop super-strong soldiers has led to a wearable robot that enables paraplegics to walk.
At 10 leading rehab facilities from Honolulu to Atlanta, Ekso Bionics' Iron Man-style exoskeletons have been quietly tested over the past year, to resounding success.
Simply put, the exoskeleton is a wearable robot that allows a wheelchair user to stand up and walk. It could be a game-changer not only for wounded warriors with spinal cord injuries, but for people with multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, lower extremity weakness or paralysis due to neurological disease or spinal injury.
Wheelchairs have been the go-to solution for more than 1,500 years – the 2002 census estimated 2.8 million U.S. citizens rely on them -- but now Ekso Bionics is literally revolutionizing this space. Its ultimate goal: a robot that is as easy to wear as a pair of jeans, one that requires not only innovative engineering but biomechanics advancements and cyborg-type research.
“Making a robot itself is difficult enough. To add that to the body and put it on like a pair of jeans is a whole other level,” Ekso Bionics CEO Eythor Bender said at a March TEDMed conference in Long Beach, Calif.
The exoskeleton has four electric motors that replicate a person’s hips and knees. Fifteen sensors are networked with a computer that sits on the user’s back and acts as a “brain.” A battery pack provides four hours of endurance.
While users learn to walk with the exoskeleton -- for some, it is quite literally their first steps -- physical therapists hold a remote control to assist, support and guide them. The Ekso is designed to make the gait as natural as possible, which is particularly important for users who are relearning how to walk.
The exoskeleton can be modified to fit a person ranging from 5-foot-2 to 6-foot-2, with a maximum weight of 220 pounds. While there are some contraindications, many are capable of passing the medical screening and evaluation to use the device, the company has said.
In its current phase, a candidate must have the upper body strength to transfer from a wheelchair to a regular chair and to balance with crutches.
The next stage involves artificial intelligence and the user going solo. With that model, he’ll be able to initiate a step by leading with his arms and crutches and driving the opposite foot forward. The Ekso’s brain identifies body movement signals and converts them into movement of the exoskelton’s “hips” and “knees.”
This next generation will be available for trial within the next six months; it is currently undergoing clinical trials at the Kessler Institute.
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Wow, talk about exciting stuff. This is a great break through in science. People will be able to walk again with this. Some good news in my opinion.