Wearable Robots Give New Life to Paralyzed Patients

by Tom Emrich

31-year-old Sarah Anderson is admittedly a stubborn and feisty individual.

“When people say I can't do something or I should just give up, it's my stubborn will and tenacity that pushes me to keep on going,” she says. These qualities were essential to her survival when doctors told her that she would no longer walk after surviving a hit by a drunk driver in 2003 and would be dependent on a wheelchair for life.

But Sarah wasn’t wheeling around at the inaugural Engadget Expand showroom floor. She stood upright and was walking around with the assistance of crutches. This was all made possible with the use of a wearable robot or exoskeleton from Esko Bionics.

The exoskeleton looks like something write out of a science fiction or superhero movie. A battery powered bionic device is fitted around the lower extremities of the individual. The skeleton itself doesn’t automate the walking for the user but requires the balance and body positioning in conjunction with two high-capacity lithium batteries that drive the hip and knee motors to walk. Working with a physical therapist, the device is configured for specific walking parameters as well as controls to help the Esko sit, stand and take steps. The device allows a walking speed of up to one mile per hour.

Cofounder Russ Angold told the audience attending the “Better Living Through Technology” panel that it was critical that the exoskeleton not do everything for the user, as when our muscles are put on autopilot they tend to further weaken and ultimately lose their abilities completely over time. Russ explained that the technology at Esko Bionics is meant to augment human capability not replace it.

Esko Bionics initially started back in 2005 as Berkeley ExoWorks pioneering the world of exoskeletons through military technology meant to lessen the risk of injury from soldiers carrying heavy loads. The first products, the ExoHiker and the ExoClimber, provided soldiers with the ability to carry 200lbs without even feeling it and dramatically improved endurance for longer distance on-foot travel.

The company switched focus from military to medical use when Russ’ brother suffered an accident that left him temporarily paralyzed. Russ told the crowd that “this event changed the focus of the company completely."

Russ did acknowledge that without out a military start the progress of exoskeleton research and product development would not be as fast if the company would have started in the private sector right out of the gate. And in fact the product is having a full circle moment since the bionic exoskeleton can now be used for wounded soldiers who have suffered lower-extremity paralysis from active duty. 

Esko Bionics released their first non-military product February 14 of this year and have 36 devices out in the wild. The exoskeleton costs about $110,000 and right now their product is only for patients that have lower-extremity paralysis or weakness and need assistance to stand up and walk. The company has over 20 Esko certified rehabilitation centers mostly found in the US with some in Europe.

Russ did predict that we are a few years off for the use of bionic technology to augment the general performance of everyday people who are not in need of medical assistance. That being said, Esko does intend to offer a personal version of the exoskeleton in 2014.

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Tom Emrich

Tom Emrich

Tom is a freelance consultant and blogger based in Toronto specializing in mobile, tablets and emerging technology. He has worked with independent developers, major media companies and start-ups on successfully developing, launching and marketing digital products here in Canada and abroad. His professional passion for technology is eclipsed only by his personal obsession with emerging... more

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