US researchers create suit that can enable paraplegics to walk

An exoskeleton that allows paraplegics to walk using technology based on military research made its European debut in London last week.

Ekso Bionics (formerly Berkeley Bionics) has been trialling the electronic suit in the US since 2010 and now hopes to roll it out in rehabilitation centres and eventually homes in Europe, following its launch at the London International Technology Show.

The current Ekso model is remotely controlled by an operator walking behind the user, but the company plans to unveil a fully independent model powered by artificial intelligence next year.

The firm’s chief executive officer, Eythor Bender, told The Engineer that developing a suit that could stand up and walk was just the beginning.

‘Everything beyond this is now a possibility: make it smaller, lightweight, applications for stroke [patients], better master the balance so we can take it into people’s homes and use it in daily living,’ he said.

The suit — dubbed ‘Ekso’ — provides nearly four hours of battery power to its electronic legs, which replicate walking by bending the user’s knees and lifting their legs with what the company claims is the most natural gait available today.

When the independent model is launched it will use a series of sensors placed around the body and in the accompanying crutches to detect how the user wants it to move, using a computer to signal the legs to carry out the movements in real time.

‘The biggest challenge was developing a frame that transferred the weight completely to the ground,’ said Bender. ‘After that we started applying power to it to get more strength and increasing endurance.’

Ekso is adapted from technology developed at the University of California, Berkeley, for the US military to enable soldiers to carry heavy loads.

The original suit used hydraulic mechanisms but these have been replaced with less powerful electronic ones as the medical exoskeleton doesn’t need to support as much weight.