Hugging someone standing up. Going on a hike. Making eye contact with someone at their level, instead of always being looked down upon. These are simple things that people stuck in wheelchairs don’t have a chance to experience in daily life.
Berkeley Bionics is giving those experiences back to paraplegics with the introduction of an exoskeleton suit called eLEGS–a battery powered, artificially intelligent, wearable outer skeleton that gives these people back their freedom. People wearing these devices won’t be a common sight just yet–a suit is currently priced at about $100,000 a pop, and they’ll only be available for use in clinics at first–but it’s an exciting step forward.
The person straps into an exoskeleton made of carbon fiber and steel, which weighs 45 pounds. Sensors in the legs convey their position to a control unit contained in a backpack, and the controller tells which joints to bend to create a natural gait. The user gives the suit commands using two high-tech crutches: pressure on both tells the motorized legs to stand up, pressure on one means to step with the opposite leg. The suit’s battery pack can power up to six hours of walking, and it can reach speeds above two miles per hour.
Amanda Boxtel, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a skiing accident 18 years ago, tried out the device and says she took to it quickly.
“Walking with eLEGs took some rewiring and relearning,” says Boxtel, “but my body has the muscle memory. And I learned to walk really fast.” [New Scientist]
The suit will be used in a clinical trials at select rehabilitation centers starting in early 2011, and its makers hope a commercial model won’t be too far behind. Berkeley Bionics wants to make a lighter, thinner, and cheaper model (hopefully closer to $50,000, Berkeley Bionics CEO Eythor Bender says) available for home use by 2013.
Hit the jump for more info, and a poignant video of several paralyzed people giving eLEGS a tryout.