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New-generation exoskeleton helps the paralyzed to walk

05 February 2016

UC Berkeley’s Robotics Lab has been working for more than a decade to create robotic exoskeletons that allow those with limited mobility to walk.

Steven Sanchez, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a BMX accident, wearing SuitX’s Phoenix (photo courtesy of SuitX)

Now, a new, lighter and more agile exoskeleton, for which a team of graduate students led by mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni, developed the original technology, has been unveiled. The 'Phoenix' is a development of SuitX, a robotics lab spinoff founded by Kazerooni, its CEO.

The Phoenix is lightweight, has two motors at the hips and electrically controlled tension settings that tighten when the wearer is standing and swing freely when they’re walking. Users can control the movement of each leg and walk up to 1.1 miles per hour by pushing buttons integrated into a pair of crutches. It’s powered for up to eight hours by a battery pack worn in a backpack.

“We can’t really fix their disease,” says Kazerooni. “We can’t fix their injury. But what it would do is postpone the secondary injuries due to sitting. It gives a better quality of life.”

Kazarooni and his team have developed a series of exoskeletons over the years. Their work in the field began in 2000 with a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a device - now called the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) - that could help people carry heavier loads for longer. At that time, Kazerooni also realised the potential use for exoskeletons in the medical field, particularly as an alternative to wheelchairs.

In 2011, they made the exoskeleton that helped Berkeley senior Austin Whitney, paralyzed from the waist down in a 2007 car accident, make an epic walk across the graduation stage to receive his diploma. Soon after, the Austin Project was created in honor of Whitney, with a goal of finding new technologies to create reliable, inexpensive exoskeleton systems for everyday personal use.

Today, the Phoenix is one of the lightest and most accessible exoskeletons to hit the market. It can be adjusted to fit varied weights, heights and leg sizes and can be used for a range of mobility hindrances. And, although far from inexpensive at $40,000, it’s about the half the cost of other exoskeletons that help restore mobility.

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