Since 2007 after being shot in the chest for $20 and a fake gold chain Renowitzky has been paralyzed. But he can stand, walk and balance using crutches, when wearing an exoskeleton suit with motorized knees and hips powering his movements. Wearable robots aren’t new. DARPA has been funding their development since the early 2000s with the aim of building motorized armor to enhance soldiers’ endurance and strength. Ekso Bionics, Panasonic and others offer upper-body suits that help construction and factory workers lift heavy loads. But their most powerful promise may be in helping people regain oversight of their bodies.
Therapeutic exoskeletons are found mainly in rehab centers and hospitals, where they help increase strength, encourage blood circulation and fight muscle atrophy. The current generation, from companies like Rex Bionics, ReWalk, Ekso Bionics and SuitX, can be bulky, with a gait best described as robotic. Users can walk with them only on solid, level surfaces and need crutches for support and balance. Still, they’re life-changing for paraplegics like Renowitzky.
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Mark Daniel walks along the shore of the Limmat River that runs through Zurich’s Old Town. The day before, Daniel, 27, had competed against six others in a powered exoskeleton race, where robot-assisted athletes performed six everyday tasks, like sitting down and climbing stairs. He placed second. Daniel has been testing motorized legs at Florida’s not-for-profit Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) since 2010, but this was the first time he got to sightsee in them.
So far, only a few companies around the world have regulatory approval to sell exoskeletons for home use. Renowitzky is one of the lucky few to have an Exo suit to call his own. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, yet about 17,000 people a year suffer from spinal cord injuries in the US alone.
Tech companies, Universities and clinics are working to make motorized legs and hips thinner and lighter enough to tuck under clothing. Peter Neuhaus, senior researcher at IHMC says, their ultimate goal is to develop suits that feel like second nature to walk in, allowing users to move more quickly and over rougher terrain, turn and sidestep. For example, right now, users have to consciously balance themselves when they take a step. The IHMC wants robotics to take over more of that responsibility.
Neuhaus with his team has built an exoskeleton with powered ankles that can be adjusted for angle and stiffness. These might someday allow users to walk faster and stand without crutches. The researchers across the world have been working on ways to control exoskeletons by thought alone.