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Could exoskeletons help the disabled?

August 14, 2012

ON a weekday morning in June, 50 people gather at the launch of a new technology shop in a science park outside Cambridge, eastern England. Dubbed a ‘store opening’ by its hosts, the US firm Ekso, it is quite unlike most retail events. There are no shelves, tills, or counters; no free samples or catalogues. Instead, Ekso suggests that guests — about a quarter of whom are in wheelchairs — might try out one of its devices, in conjunction with the private physiotherapy firm, Prime Physio. Then, in months or years to come, the wealthier among them could walk away with some of Ekso’s kit.

“Technology is reaching the point where those who have been disabled can be re-enabled,” says Andy Hayes, Ekso’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, in his address. A slide of the bionic superhero Iron Man pops up on an accompanying PowerPoint presentation.

Ekso Bionics has produced the first ready-to-wear, motorised exoskeleton to be made commercially available in Britain. Called the Ekso, this battery-powered robot suit enables paraplegics to stand and walk.

Though this technology is at the forefront of the field, the Ekso is not the first of its kind. British disability campaigner Claire Lomas completed the London Marathon earlier this year using an Israeli-made ReWalk suit; Ossur, the Icelandic prosthetics firm that makes the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius’s carbon-fibre legs has a line of electrically powered feet and knees; Honda produces a lightweight device for users with minor walking difficulties.

Yet Ekso is notable not only for its technology and the price tag (£100,000 for the exoskeleton which it hopes to lower to £50,000 within the next two years), but its ambitious plans. It sees a time when able-bodied users will be strapping on machines too. In an age when Tony Stark’s exoskeleton tops the box-office charts in The Avengers, and Pistorius competes in both the Olympics and Paralympics, Ekso thinks there’s a demand for robotic suits that not only aid disabled people, but enhance the abilities of everyone.

The firm’s CEO, Eythor Bender, has said he believes exoskeletons are “the jeans of the future”, offering assistance with manual labour. “Shipyard workers could probably only hold a 10kg angle-grinder for a couple of minutes,” says Hayes. “Whereas if they had a bionic suit, they could work for hours and reduce costs.”

Theoretically, Ekso’s suits could find all sorts of uses. In practice, their applications are more limited. We watch as 24-year-old Suzanne Edwards dons the device and takes a few steps. Edwards had been a surfing instructor until she suffered a spinal cord injury in January 2011. She is delighted to be able to rise from her chair and walk. However, two of Ekso’s staff have to guide her movements, and it’s hard to see how it could replace her wheelchair permanently.

Ekso doesn’t claim to offer a simple fix for paralysis. Yet it does believe that regular exercise in the suit could help in other ways, such as increasing bone density, improving bladder functions, and aiding weight loss. — The Guardian, London