Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Walking Again

The beginning of an age of bionics?

Technology already extends our abilities and help to compensate for abilities we've lost. A wheelchair is an amazingly useful technological approach to help those who have lost the use of their legs to move around. But innovations from multiple research groups and start-ups are showing that even greater strides (pun intended) are about to be made. Bionics.

Maybe you've seen a Ted Talk featuring a military use of an exoskeleton to assist soldiers needing to carry heavy gear, and a wheelchair-bound woman who had suffered a spinal cord injury, using an exoskeleton to walk for the first time in many years. Or maybe you've seen a holiday episode of the popular television show Glee in which Artie (a glee club member who uses a wheelchair) dons an exoskeleton to walk.

This month, a company called Exso Bionics is making their exoskeleton available commercially. The Exso Bionics web site says that "Ekso is the bionic exoskeleton that allows wheelchair users to stand and walk." Sounds simple.

The price tag is still roughly $100,000. But it's fair to assume that the price can come down with manufacturing efficiencies and volume.

Do you think we'll start to see people using exoskeletons in every day life in the next few years? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.


1 comment:

  1. This is amazing. I have some first-hand experience interacting with folks who have suffered spinal cord injuries. My dad became a quadriplegic last year. My family and I are constantly amazed by the innovative technology that allows these paralyzed patients to regain their independence. I don't think my dad will walk again, even with robotic help. We are thrilled that he can drive a motorized wheelchair and is learning to feed himself and brush his teeth. But I have met a number of patients in the rehab hospital with different levels of injury, and I can envision quite a few of them taking advantage of this exoskeleton technology. The pricetag is high, but I agree it may come down. We may even see insurance companies help with the cost eventually. A wheelchair can cause pressure sores if the person is in one position for too long. In addition to improved quality of life, the exoskeleton may reduce the risk of sores because of the range of motion it provides.

    Based on my dad's experience in rehab, I believe the primary goal of those doctors and therapists is to teach the patients how to live in their new situation. As soon as my dad had enough strength in his arm, they had him learning to use a motorized wheelchair. The idea was that he'd learn how to use the technology that he would continue to use after leaving rehab. If the exoskeletons really debut in rehab facilities early this year, as Exso's website says, I have to believe we will see patients using them outside of rehab within a few years. There may be some benefits of the skeleton as a therapy tool only, but I'd like to think that a good rehab hospital will not train patients to use something unless they can continue to use it on their own.

    Thanks for writing about this. I hadn't heard about this company and the commercial availability. If I get a chance, I will ask Dad's therapists if they are getting any of this equipment. Very cool stuff!