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This Light, Affordable Exoskeleton Could Help The Paralyzed Walk Again

A new design for a device that increases mobility for paraplegics could open up whole new worlds of activity to the disabled.

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Brian Shaffer’s kids call him Iron Man. He was paralyzed from the waist down in a motor accident, and has been testing out a new robotic exoskeleton that is changing the way he moves. Most recently, he’s been giving it a spin around a kitchen setup, opening and shutting the refrigerator and reaching into cabinets—access far beyond the scope of a wheelchair. When he walks up to a doorway, he can pause to open the door for himself, and when through, reach behind to close it behind him.

Therapists who’ve worked with other exoskeleton designs say this one fits better, moves better, and is easier to use than the two other robotic walking suits in the market. Best yet, its makers say it could also be the most affordable exoskeleton out there.

The new suit is built at the Vanderbilt labs of Michael Goldfarb. The team recently licensed their technology to control and motions systems manufacturer Parker Hannifin, who hopes to have the device in the U.S. market in 2014.

The prototype exoskeleton that Shaffer has been testing is evidence of great strides in assisted walking technology and design. They started out clunky, like old calculators the size of a notebook, or early cell phones, but new tech is slimming the design down while making the suits more competent. "The Parker device is like the iPhone," Clare Hartigan, a physical therapist who works with robotic prosthetics tells Co.Exist. "It’s so small and can do so much more."

Hartigan, who has spent 20 years at the Shepherd Center for rehabilitation, has been working with the Vanderbilt team in testing their prototype since 2010. She’s also worked with the other two exoskeleton models being used at rehab centers, the robotic exoskeleton made by Ekso Bionics, and the ReWalk made by Israeli firm Argo Medical Technologies.

The exoskeleton is also the first model to have functional electrical stimulation (FES) built in. That’s a technology that’s used to enervate muscles in limbs with electrical impulses for therapy in certain kinds of paralysis.

Hartigan is confident the new Parker-Vanderbilt model will succeed because of its lightness, size, and astonishing ease of use. When they tested it on Shaffer, Hartigan says "[He] was able to get up and walk with a walker the first time he got into the device."

Like a clip-on brace, the Vanderbilt-Parker exoskeleton is strapped onto a wearer’s legs and supports their weight when they stand up from a wheelchair. It is sensitive to the shifting weight of the wearer, powering their steps forward. "It’s a legged Segway," Michael Goldfarb says. When you lean forward, you move forward.

The Vanderbilt exoskeleton is lighter than the other suits on the market today, and weighs a little under 27 pounds. Part of that comes from the fact that there’s less of it, missing the shoulder support and backpack section that come with other full-body exoskeletons. "You could sit in a chair at a theater or at a meeting and your upper body would not be obstructed," Goldfarb says.

The lightness also makes the suit easier to carry around, partly because it snaps apart into three pieces (the commercial model will likely come apart into five parts). For someone sitting in a wheelchair, it’s a lot easier to put on, and take off.

The suit was also designed to be a better walker overall, closely mimicking a natural gait. A wearer can tackle ramps, stairs, even grass, something the current commercially available models cannot do, Hartigan says. "It takes natural signals and creates natural motions," Ryan Farris, a co-designer of the suit, says.

Farris worked on the prototype while Goldfarb’s student. Now an engineer at Parker Hannifin, he will lead manufacturing engineering on the device that he helped prototype in a lab. "You want the user to walk with the assistance of the device, rather than the device to walk with the person riding in it. You want it to be the person walking."