Goodbye Wheelchair: It is the Exoskeleton Time

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If you are a fan of the “Iron Man” comic books and movie series, you are probably fascinated with the powered, flight-capable suit of armor that fictional industrialist Tony Stark puts on when he goes out to battle evildoers. Would not it be great to have one of those around?

Similar applications may benefit from the advent. It is possible that people with spinal injuries or muscle-wasting diseases to get around as easily as healthy people do, thanks to full-body devices—essentially, wearable robots—that enable them to do what their own muscles and nerves do not allow them to.

Ekso Bionics ships Ekso™, the first commercialized robotic exoskeleton, has been introduced by Ekso Bionics, a young company that recently step out onto the world stage. Early 2012, the Company started selling its Ekso suit to rehabilitation clinics around the United States and Europe, to allow patients with spinal cord injuries to train with the device under a doctor's supervision. In future, the Company plans to have a model for t-home physical therapy. 

Photo: Gabriela Hasbun

When wearing Ekso, one is essentially strapping oneself to a sophisticated robot. It supports its own 20-kilogram weight via the skeletal legs and footrests and takes care of the calculations needed for each step. The user’s job is to balance his/her upper body, shifting weight as he/she plant a walking stick on the right; the physical therapist will then use a remote control to signal the left leg to step forward. In a later model the walking sticks will have motion sensors that communicate with the legs, allowing the user to take complete control.

“We took the idea of the external skele¬ton, and we added nerves in the form of sensors and motors that represent your muscles and computers that represent your brain” says Eythor Bender, CEO of Ekso Bionics.

The Company’s engineers at first thought it would take 5 kilowatts to power such an exoskeleton, which would have meant bulky batteries and motors. The breakthrough was a redistribution of weight that reduced the power requirements by three orders of magnitude.

A few other companies around the world are bringing out exoskeletons for people with disabilities. Ten top US rehabilitation clinics have already signed up for the first batch of production units.

One of the first devices will go to Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City, where Kristjan T. Ragnarsson, Chairman of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, has treated spinal cord patients for 40 years. His patients’ priorities have never changed. “The first thing they want to know is whether they will walk again,” says Ragnarsson. 

Ragnarsson thinks the Ekso can succeed where so many others failed, because the powered device does most of the labor for the patient. “I am optimistic, actually, that this will work,” he says. “I think my patients will be able to stand up and take a few steps and face the next person directly on!”

 

Photo: Cathy Clarke/Mount Sinai Medical Center

References
spectrum.ieee.org
science.howstuffworks.com

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