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Biomechanical Exoskeleton Allows the Paralyzed to Walk

California robotics company suitX revealed its Phoenix exoskeleton this week, a robotic external suit that provides support and mobility to paraplegics and others with mobility disorders.

Heading up the suitX team is Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, director of the Berkley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory and co-founder and chief scientist of Ekso Bionics. Driven by “passion to develop low-cost consumer bionic products to improve the quality of life for people around the world,” Dr. Kazerooni and his team worked with biomechanics in lieu of the bulky robotics used in other exoskeletons on the market.

“It’s really not much about the power, it’s about cleverness,” says Kazerooni. “We have tackled problems associated with design, human machine interface (HMI), actuation, power management, and control during the development of our medical exoskeletons.”

The company has designed the Phoenix to be “accessible and versatile” with a goal of improving the technology until a child-friendly version of the exoskeleton can be produced. Children affected by neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida can avoid losing their mobility with intensive walking training.

Utilizing technology from the University of California, Berkley, Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, Phoenix is built as a modular exoskeleton. It has the capability for each foot, hip, and knee module to be removed and adjusted to create an exact fit for each individual. The exoskeleton can also be customized to the wearer’s height.

The exoskeleton has silent carbon-fiber orthotics capable of being customized to its wearer. Attached to the orthotics are small motors that provide mobility to the hips and legs. Crutches provide upper body support and are integrated into the orthotics, allowing the wearer to control the movement of each leg with the touch of a button. A built-in back-mounted battery pack provides the wearer with 8 hours of intermittent or 4 hours of continual use.

Weighing around 27 pounds, the Phoenix is not the lightest exoskeleton on the market, but it is comparatively lighter than competing suits such as the more cumbersome 50 pound ReWalk.

While still costlier than a motorized wheelchair, the minimal design translates into a lower-cost exoskeleton; the Phoenix costs just $40,000 in a market where prices range from $70,000 to $100,000.

While the Phoenix is available for purchase next month, the price tag is still too steep for Kazerooni: “I still think $40,000 is way too expensive. You can buy a motorcycle for $10,000! All that technology in there? That’s amazing!” Kazerooni hopes to reduce the cost within two or three years.

“My idea and philosophy is less is more,” said Kazerooni. “We want to give a minimal amount to the user to be independent. We’re not saying this is a complete [mobility] machine, but if we come up with something that’s robust and simple—walks, stops, sits, and stands—that’s hugely enabling!”

Paralyzed from the waist down after a BMX accident eleven years ago, Steven Sanchez tests the product monthly and regularly demonstrates the exoskeleton worldwide. Unlike other exoskeletons that gave him the sensation of his lower body being hijacked, Sanchez says that the Phoenix “feels like you’re actually walking.”

Sanchez wore the Phoenix on a trip to the Vatican. He stood in line like anyone else, wearing an “awesome robotic suit” and “no one cared.” For those who can only dream of walking, there is no greater endorsement.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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