Exoskeletons: New Robotic Technology Allows Wheelchair Users to Walk

Dec 01, 2010
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An exciting assistive technology will gradually change the lives of many wheelchair users. Wearable robotic devices, so called exoskeletons, are now being launched which will for the first time offer wheelchair users the chance to walk.

eLEGS by Berkeley Bionics

The change will not come overnight. The current devices are not optimal and they are expensive. But as the market potential for exoskeletons is well in excess of $1 Billion, there is much money and effort being invested and this will eventually lead to improvement in both price and quality.

Four companies will soon be rolling out first generation exoskeletons worldwide. Some, such as the REX and HAL exoskeletons, are already available in their home markets. Each company has taken a unique approach to controlling the on-board computer which drives their exoskeleton. As a result, the different exoskeletons will find their niche. For example, some may be more suited to quadriplegics and some to paraplegics. Some will be used by people within a specific range of height and weight and others will have fewer limitations.

Watch one brand of exoskeleton, ReWalk, which is controlled by sensors and a remote control unit which can be seen on the wearer’s wrist:


Note how it is different from the Rex which is controlled by a Joystick:

Don’t expect to see people wearing exoskeletons anytime soon. The first exoskeletons, such as the ones above, will cost in excess of $100,000, far too expensive for most wheelchair users to afford. Institutions such as rehab centers will be the first customers of exoskeletons and so for several years they will be almost unseen by the public.

But in time, as competition advances the technology and brings down the price, exoskeletons will be available to a wider market. In ten years exoskeletons may be as common place as the wheelchair.

In the more distant future exoskeletons will probably be small enough to be worn under baggy trousers and be almost imperceptible, allowing paraplegics to walk without others even realizing that they are using assistive technology.

There will be many benefits that exoskeletons will bring to people with mobility disorders as well as the rest of society. In addition to the obvious improvements in quality of life there may be many health benefits as well. The ability to stand will mean that wheelchair users will have fewer pressure sores, as well as stronger bones and muscles. But also, there will be social benefits. Although some parts of the world are becoming more wheelchair accessible, they will never be completely accessible. Exoskeletons will allow wheelchair users to not only climb stairs but also climb mountains or just stroll through parks. And other parts of the world where wheelchair users rarely travel, from undeveloped countries of Africa and Asia to the old historic cities of Europe, will become accessible. Exoskeletons will not only make travel easier by visitors to those cities, but also exoskeletons will allow wheelchair users who live there to go to places in their own country where they have never been before.

You can keep updated on the progress and read more about exoskeleton technology and news.

Dr. Gene Emmer is a Physiologist and MBA. Gene runs a company which sells wheelchair accessories and authors a wheelchair blog.

Author: Dr. Gene Emmer