Until recently, being paralyzed from the waist down meant using a wheelchair to get around. And although daily life is more accessible to wheelchair users, they still face physical and social limitations. But UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory has been working to change that.
The robotics lab, a team of graduate students led by mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni, has been working for more than a decade to create robotic exoskeletons that allow those with limited mobility to walk again.
This week, a new, lighter and more agile exoskeleton, for which the Kaz lab developed the original technology, was unveiled earlier this week: The Phoenix, by SuitX, a company that has spun off the robotics lab. Kazerooni is its founder and 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.
The SuitX company aims to work with patients suffering from spinal cord injuries who can use the Phoenix to walk again. Kazerooni says his major goal is to build an exoskeleton for children with neurological disorders, so that it can help them in intensive walking training, without which they risk losing their mobility.
“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 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 realized the potential use for exoskeletons in the medical field, particularly as an alternative to wheelchairs. The team began developing new devices to restore mobility for people who had become paraplegic.
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.
There are competing exoskeleton suits from other companies too that are more pricey and heavier and are working towards improving functionality while keeping the costs low.
“Speed, operating time, mobility, and usability have to be good enough so that those systems are perceived as better by the user than the alternatives,” says Volker Bartenbach, an exoskeleton researcher at ETH.
Prof. Homayoon Kazerooni spoke about his innovation, SuitX in the recently concluded Emtech Asia 2016 held at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. While speaking about this emerging technology, he spoke about how we have a long way to go before we make an iron man-like exoskeleton a reality hinting that the movies have got it all wrong. He called upon innovators across the world to work with passion on issues such as improved mobility systems and ways to improve energy efficiency.