Robot Helps People Walk Again

Six months after doctors told him he would likely never walk again after a random accident at home, 49-year-old Chris Tagatac was back on his feet and taking steps, a feat that elated not only him, but also his family.

"The first thing I remember when I stood up... my mom just put her hand to her mouth and had this look her face, like, 'Amazing, I can't believe my son is walking again,' " Tagatac told Design News. He took 52 steps that day, giving him hope that he could defy the odds and once again regain the same active life he had before he was left paralyzed last year.

Tagatac didn't accomplish this feat on his own, however. He was walking with the help of Ekso, a wearable robot from a company called Ekso Bionics that consists of braces, sensors, and motors that anticipate people's movements and take steps for them.

Ekso is just one of a number of innovations in robotics designed to help people who've suffered paralysis and other spinal-cord and lower-body injuries get back on their feet and walk. The military is also experimenting with similar technology as a way to unburden soldiers from heavy loads, and a company in Israel called Argo Medical Technologies has developed a machine, called ReWalk, with a similar aim to Ekso.

In fact, the research to develop the former is how Ekso developed. The company's founders came up with the idea for the robot from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project to provide an exoskeleton to help soldiers carry very large loads. The trick was to develop technology that didn't use energy to carry the load, reserving it for other things, Nathan Harding, co-founder and chief project officer of Ekso Bionics, the manufacturer of the product, told us. "It's kind-of like the difference between a helicopter that's holding up the weight and using energy to do so and a table that's holding up the weight and using no energy to do so," he said.

Ekso engineers developed this technology in 2005 and later used it as the base to form their own company. While it's not this exact technology that's used in its wearable robot, Harding said the company did use the concept behind it to develop the robot that allows Tagatac and others walk in Ekso.

Moving muscles, not bones
Ekso's robot works by providing torque to people's joints at the knees, hips, and ankles. A patient moves into the device from a sitting position in a wheelchair, attaching braces made of aluminum, steel, titanium, and carbon fiber with Velcro to their legs and around their waist. Patients' feet go into bindings at the bottom similar to those on a snowboard, said Tagatac.

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