wheelchair

A piece in IEEE Spectrum describes a technological innovation that will revolutionize how the mobility challenged are able to move about. It is an exoskeleton and promises to make the wheelchair as obsolete as the iron lung and the ear trumpet.

A company called Ekso Bionics, which has been developing a wearable exoskeleton for the military, will shortly begin producing models that can be used to help people with spinal cord injuries go through rehabilitation. Eventually the exoskeleton can be used for people who cannot walk on their own to walk again. Absent the achievement of the Holy Grail of spinal and brain injuries — the regeneration of damaged tissue — the exoskeleton promises to be the greatest boon to the disabled in a long time.

The model displayed in the accompanying video shows a young woman who was paralyzed in an accident six years ago wearing the exoskeleton comfortable and walking slowly but steadily with the assistance of a pair of crutches or a walker. Thus far a therapist controls the action of the exoskeleton, which is driven by motors in the knees and legs. A small battery suffices to provide power.

Later models will allow the user of the exoskeleton to control his or her own movements, using a sensor in a walking stick. Plans are also afoot to use the exoskeleton as a therapy tool and eventually a walking device for people suffering from MS and the aftereffects of a stroke.

Thus far an exoskeleton costs $100,000, but it is expected that the price will come down as production steps up and technological innovation proceeds apace. The exoskeleton will likely become less bulky and easier to use as development continues.

The potential for improving the lives of the mobility challenged cannot be overstated. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act that requires accommodations ranging from wheelchair ramps to spacious public bathrooms, being confined to a wheelchair can be a challenge. If someone who cannot walk on their own can simply don an exoskeleton and then walk as a non-disabled person can, it will be a revolution comparable to the cochlear implant has been for the deaf.

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