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Exoskeletons for the Disabled

It May be Possible to Walk Again


Updated November 27, 2012

Exoskeletons for the Disabled

NASA Exoskeleton


Is it possible for individuals who are wheelchair bound to walk again? In some cases it is possible to walk with the assistance of an exoskeleton. The exoskeleton was built as a way to provide resistance exercise to NASA astronauts while they were in space. While the future of the exoskeleton being used in space may now be in question, the use of it on earth is almost certain. The exoskeleton may be the future for those with chronic joint problems, back injuries, weakness in the lower extremities and the elderly.

Brief History of the Exoskeleton

NASA, The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston jointly developed the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton. The device weighs 57 pounds and was designed to provide resistance exercise to astronauts in the space station. The developers believe that by reversing the technology they can assist disabled individuals to walk on the ground. “By combining NASA technology and walking algorithms developed at IHMC, X1 has the potential to produce high torques to allow for assisted walking over varied terrain, as well as stair climbing. Preliminary studies using X1 for this purpose have already started at the IHMC.”

The X1 exoskeleton was designed around technology that evolved from the Robonaut 2 and the Mina exoskeleton designed by IHMC.

How the Exoskeleton Works

The X1 Robotic Exoskeleton, like other similar devices now being developed, is worn over the legs, and then it reaches up the back and is attached over the shoulders with a harness, like a backpack. The X1 has “four motorized joints at the hips and the knees, and six passive joints that allow for sidestepping, turning and pointing, and flexing a foot,” according to the IHMC. The device also has many points that can be adjusted to suit the individual using it. Future models of this exoskeleton may be even more flexible, which could allow for more natural movement so that the user could navigate diverse terrains and steps of varying size more easily. Developers plan on adding more joints, such as in the hip and ankle, that will allow for more movement in future models.

Users of the device would not wear it all of the time, but would probably use it in conjunction with a wheelchair. The device could be transported on the wheelchair, then when the user wanted to get up and walk at their destination they could strap the device on while sitting down, then stand up and begin walking. The weight of the device, coupled with the effort required to walk, would be too exhausting to use all of the time.

Health Benefits of the Exoskeleton

Along with the X1, the Esko, Argo and Vanderbilt exoskeleton devices can help get people up and out of their wheelchairs, which translates to numerous health benefits for the users. According to Clare Hartigan of the Shepherd Center, “People who must rely on a wheelchair to move around can develop serious problems with their urinary, respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive systems, as well as getting osteoporosis, pressure sores, blood clots and other afflictions associated with lack of mobility. The risk for developing these conditions can be reduced considerably by regularly standing, moving and exercising their lower limbs.”

Estimated Cost and Home Use

The estimated cost for the Vanderbilt device is $140,000 USD, with additional service fees. Other devices are still in development, and estimated sale costs to the general public have yet to be determined. Some of the exoskeleton devices are being used in rehabilitation facilities on a trial basis; the cost is being distributed among the number of individuals who use the device each day (approximately 8 individuals per device, per day), making it affordable in a healthcare setting.

The Vanderbilt device is being developed by the Parker Hannifin Corporation, which is hoping to release a commercial version in 2014. The price may become much more affordable once it is in mass production and made available to the general public.

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