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Paraplegia, paralysis from the waist down, used to confine all affected to the wheelchair. With disabled-friendly facilities being far from the norm, the limitations of this kind of existence are stark. A team of researchers at UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory has is getting closer to changing this reality.
Led by mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni, the team has been fastidiously working for more than a decade to create exoskeletons that can give back mobility to those that have lost it.
SuitX, a spin-off company of the laboratory led by Kazerooni, has recently unveiled The Phoenix – a light and agile exoskeleton. The Phoenix has two motors at the hips with electrically controlled tension settings. They swing freely during walking and tighten when the user stands. Using buttons in the accompanying crutches users can control the the movement of the legs to walk at speeds exceeding 1.5 km/h. The battery pack, carried in a backpack, lasts up to eight hours.
“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 began working on the project in 2000, developing a series of increasingly sophisticated exoskeletons over the years. The work was kickstarted with funding from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a device to assist people carry heavy loads, now called the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX). Work on that project led Kazarooni to realise that it could be applied to the medical field.
The Phoenix is one of the lightest exoskeletons available to date. At $40,000 it’s not cheap, but still is half the cost of other available models.
This next video shows the remarkable results of this exoskeleton. Paraplegics can now stand, walk, and even play soccer.