Military-turned Commercial Exoskeleton is Reanimating Paraplegics

Part paraplegic-lifesaver, part sci-fi-inspired-robotic-device-of-the-future, the new Bionic Exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics is bad-ass. Despite being initially funded by the US military, engineer extraordinaire Thomas Dwyer’s Skynet-inspired design isn’t aimed at world domination by a robotic race, but instead the less malevolent intention of re-animating paraplegics. The device seems to have come full circle though as the machine may be used by many of the wheelchair-confined vets who were injured, then released by the US military.

The Exoskeleton launched Oct 21 of this year at the Excel Center in London is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that will help paraplegics and other spinal chord-injured users in wheelchairs stand and walk, for the first time in years. The new bi-pedal, battery-powered device debuted from Ekso Bionics alongside inventor Dwyer and the skeleton’s first user, inspiration speaker and paraplegic Amanda Boxtel. “The first time I walked, I just cried,” says Boxtel after the exoskeleton provided her with her first steps in almost a decade.

The Ekso device works by using sensors to determine tiny movements in the body, and then translates them into movement and strides as the device’s motors in the hip and knee joints move the skeleton forward. The suit itself consists of a controller mounted on a backpack-style device connected to the unit’s robotic legs. The legs are controlled by the skeleton’s 4 motors; two at the hip and one at each knee. The ankle joint has no motor, and is instead loaded with passive springs that keep the foot properly angled for proper heel-to-toe gait alignment. The Ekso device will naturally support the users weight, but the balance and other controls are distributed completely by the user via computerized crutches. To move the device the user will push down on the crutches, similar to the way they would push down on a leg when stepping — to stand users compress both crutches simultaneously, moving them from a seated to standing position.

The device was not originally intended for mobility in the wheelchair-bound as the company got its start (and funding) from the American military, whose interest lied in giving their soldiers increased agility and strength via an exoskeleton. It was just 5 years ago that Ekso Bionics realized the machine’s potential for spinal-chord injury victims. “We want to enhance their independence and freedom of movement and with Esko they now have the option to stand and walk for the first time since their injury,” says Eythor Bender, Ekso Bionics.

The newly-released exoskeleton debuted at the London International Technology Show will be available next year, first to rehab facilities, then to individuals for roughly £100,000 a pair.

The hefty price tag for the devices however will make them the new must-have in the uber-tiny millionaire-paraplegic market. OK, China — hurry up and create a ripped-off, communist-China, knockoff version. Or perhaps open-source hardware enthusiasts will post some schematics online for a DYI version for those super-handy paraplegs.