Exoskeleton Helps Paralyzed To Walk

Paul Thacker became a tester of the Ekso "exoskeleton" device after a snowmobile accident left him partially paralyzed.
Paul Thacker became a tester of the Ekso “exoskeleton” device after a snowmobile accident left him partially paralyzed.

Contrary to what you might guess from scanning the daily business headlines, not all of today’s technology advances relate to finding more clever ways to either distract or destroy ourselves.

Take, for instance, the Ekso – a wearable, motorized scaffold that allows wheelchair users the ability to stand up and walk again.

Developed by Richmond, CA, firm Ekso Bionics, the Ekso stands at the forefront of what could possibly become a flourishing industry of tech-enabled “exoskeletons.” The idea of mechanized, strength-enhancing supersuits is nothing new. Science fiction enthusiasts have been exposed to so-called exosuits for the last several decades: from the power suits of Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi classic Starship Troopers to Ripley’s “Power Loader” in Aliens to the mecha warriors popularized in Japanese anime. And of course, nearly everybody’s familiar with Iron Man. Consider it yet another case of life imitating art in the realm of cybernetic engineering.

Ekso Specs

The real-life version, as brought to life by Ekso Bionics, is far less extravagant than its fictional predecessors, but also considerably more practical. Instead of possessing the power to carry oversize energy weapons, the Ekso gives paralyzed individuals the hope of greater mobility and independence.

The unit itself consists of a relatively lightweight frame (about 50 pounds) that straps rod-like, actuated “legs” to the user’s own legs. These walking supports are in turn connected to a torso harness and backpack that houses batteries and system electronics. The device does all the work and transfers its weight to the ground – so at no time does a user feel weighed down.

Three different walk modes help a user progress from a learning stage (with the help of a traditional rehab walker and a therapist), through a “ProStep” mode which senses the user’s intent based on body motions, and allows him or her to walk independently.

Freedom Restoring Robotics

Ekso Bionics is just one of many companies focused on developing robotic “quality of life technologies” – a category of tech that aims to help people with physical impairments enjoy richer lives. With average population ages in Western countries starting to skew older, it’s predicted that such technologies will play an important role in keeping people more active and engaged (and therefore in better health) well into their later years.

As amazing as the Ekso may seem, it’s far from alone when it comes to aiding and augmenting the abilities of people with physical impairments:

  • Argo Medical Technologies, founded in Israel by Dr. Amit Goffer, markets an exoskeleton walking system, called ReWalk, that’s already available to the public in Europe (it’s awaiting FDA approval in the United States); one woman used her ReWalk to complete the London Marathon.
  • Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis claims he will be able to demonstrate a thought-operated exoskeleton for the disabled within the next two years.
  • Exoskeletons aren’t just made for walking: at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, researchers have been working on a mobility aid for people with limited use of their upper extremities. The Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance (PerMMA) combines a motorized wheelchair, a pair of robotic arms, and sophisticated software to potentially give tended-to people their independence back. PerMMA’s creators promise a dexterous device that will free individuals to dress themselves, shop, and prepare meals without any longer needing an attendant.

Despite measures such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, society still has a long way to go toward providing equal access to people with physical impairments. Perhaps technology will be able to bridge the gap. By offering the gifts of mobility and independence, it could help people with disabilities to more fully participate in and contribute to the world around them.