Ekso Bionics has created a wearable robot to help people with spinal cord injuries walk again.
In science fiction movies, mad scientists are always building robots ... but then the devices malfunction, turn evil, and start building bombs instead of flipping pancakes like we designed them to.
But maybe we've been thinking about robots all wrong. What if they weren't self-contained standalone devices, but were instead designed to be almost a part of us, augmenting and improving upon the things that the human body already does so well?
For Matt Tilford, that day is here. Injured five years ago, Tilford is a T-10 paraplegic with no mobility in his legs. He was told that he'd never walk again. But just last year, a company called Ekso Bionics gave him a chance to try its new prototype device. From a distance it looks like a heavy set of leg braces, with a backpack attached. But what it does it totally revolutionary.
As a roomful of techies watched at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Tilford put his arms on the rails of his wheelchair ... and stood up. With a huge grin on his face -- and a physical therapist standing nervously behind him -- he slowly and calmly walked across the stage.
"Nothing has changed in wheelchairs for over 500 years," said Russ Angold, co-founder and CTO of Berkeley, Calif.-based Ekso Bionics. There are 265,000 people in the U.S. with spinal cord injuries, and as Angold said with characteristic understatement, "Walking is kind of a big deal."
The Ekso wearable robots have all sorts of applications, from helping the elderly be more mobile, to allowing backpackers to carry loads that would normally be staggering. The military has expressed interest as well, and testing is already ongoing. Soldiers carry extreme loads and over 65% of the evacuations in Afghanistan and Iraq were due to musculoskeletal injuries.
The machine is heavy -- about 44 pounds -- but it actually carries its own weight. "I feel one with it," Tilford said. Four motors act as electric muscles and the on-board battery lasts for up to three hours. Each step can be triggered by a click from a remote, or in Tilford's case, by a set of sensors that can actually predict when he's about to take a step, and then move his legs forward mechanically.
One of the main sticking points is cost. A unit currently runs about $140,000 and they are available only in clinical settings. Though Tilford asks every time, he's not yet been allowed to take the unit home. Ekso is currently operating in 21 centers worldwide and they're hoping to have 40 Ekso devices out by the end of 2012.
"We've taken a science fiction project, and it's not science fiction any more," Angold said. Ask Matt Telford what it is, and he can explain it to you in one word: "Freedom."
- Zac Unger is a freelancer who has written for The Economist, Slate, Men's Journal, NPR, and many others. His memoir,