Every year, the future seems to become more and more a part of today. Now, robotic exoskeletons are on the verge of helping the paralyzed to walk. Not only can they return function to the human body, they will also be able to give us abilities the human body never had. What is on the horizon?
This man is completely paralyzed. He has no control over his legs and yet, we can see him walking again. Mark Pollock has been completely paralyzed for four years. He fell out of a second story window in 2010 and became a paraplegic. This new system from Ekso Bionics helps him move by outside stimulation that sends an electronic signal to his muscles. With the help of the exoskeleton aiding his movement, he is able to walk again.
This robotic exoskeleton is another model put out by Eksobionics. It lets the patient train the suit to mimic his or her own gait. It reacts to the user by simple movement. If the patient leans forward, it will take a step. If he leans back, the suit will sit down. If he leans forward from a sitting position, the suit will stand up. At first, the patient will start out training the suit with a walker. By progressing through the steps, the patient will graduate to crutches. For many patients, this all happens in just one day.
“Use the Force, Luke Mindwalker…” is not far from the truth here. This robotic exoskeleton uses your thoughts to operate. By hooking up your brain, you can ignore your own spinal cord (that may not work) and send your thoughts directly to the exoskeleton. This program is funded by the European Union and is tasked by several different countries. While it is in the initial stages, its future has several different directions it can go in thanks to the multi level cooperation.
Here, the intended patient can be a stroke victim. By working in time with a treadmill, the robotic exoskeleton syncs with the user to rehabilitate the weakened muscles to relearn how to walk again. P&S Mechanics, who developed the Walkbot, has even developed a pediatric version. This device can help patients with osteoarthritis, cerebral palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclorosis, sports injuries and even amputation. Hospitals in Korea have already begun helping patients regain their mobility.
The human user contributes much of the initial movement and strength but then the passive robotic exoskeleton takes over. Current models can help soldiers carry a hundred pound weight by re-distributing two-thirds of the weight away from the human user and using the strapped on seven pound exoskeleton to carry the major load. Under development in Australia, soldiers are able to carry heavy loads for much longer with less stress on their muscles.
Most devices are still in the experimental stage but are close to commercial manufacturing. Two problems are still being solved though the answers are quickly coming into place. In some cases, a lighter battery pack to speed up function is needed. Scientists are still in the slow and cumbersome phase. But, if you remember the backpack cell phones in the 80s and compare them to the pocket size communicators we have now, you know this is an easily solved situation.
The second hurdle is cost. Through lightweight manufacturing and smarter computer chips to help with the algorithms, the cost has been lowered to as little as $40,000. That’s not bad when compared to an ultra top end wheel chair that price tags around $10,000. The cost will come down even more once production increases to meet the demand once it hits the market.