We have been hearing about them for years. Exoskeletons, those robotic legs that will enable wheelchair users to walk would be "coming soon". We have seen videos of these futuristic devices allowing paralyzed people to get out of their wheelchairs for the first time in years. But these complicated devices were always under development and were years away from the market. We would have to wait for years of testing before they were ready for prime time. The wait is now over. As of 2010 three exoskeletons for wheelchair users will be on the market!
Rewalk™ from Argo Medical Techologies promises on the company FAQ to be "ready for world-wide commercial deployment by 2010". Rewalk™ VP Business Development Europe John Frijters informed me that ReWalk ™ is currently in trials in USA and in Italy. Frijters said: "The ReWalk™ has CE certification and is scheduled to be released for sale in a rehabilitation- and therapy version by the end of this year. For next year we plan to have our 'home use' version available." I asked about pricing and Frijters said: "The ReWalk™ will be made available in two versions. The ReWalk™–I is our institutional system for multi-patient use. This system plus certification and training of the institution will be around €100.000,00. The ReWalk™–I is designed to be used with many patients for their rehabilitation program or therapy sessions. The ReWalk™ 'home use' version will be fitted more individually. This version will cost the end-user (or his/her insurance) less. But final prices are not defined yet." When I asked how he believed that the ReWalk™ would differentiate from the Rex, Friter responded: "Probably the main differentiator between the ReWalk™ and other exoskeleton systems is, that the ReWalk™ is an active system. The user steers, by upper body movement, the system. By the movement of the user, the gait cycle is initiated and controlled, whereas for example with the REX it seems that movement and positioning is controlled via a joy-stick. What both and other systems have in common that, being able to come to an upright position, contributes to health and well being. With ReWalk™, in addition to standing up, the fact that being active in the ReWalk™ whilst walking contributes even more to the (clinical) well being. The active part contributes significantly to fitness, blood circulation, etc."
HAL™ from Prof.Sankai of CYBERDYNE and Univ. of Tsukuba is currently marketed in Japan for people with weakened muscles and for some people with disabilities due to stroke and/or spinal cord injury. Currently HAL™ is sold only for rental use in Japan. Rental costs range from 10,8000 - 14,8000 JPY ($1,240 - $1,700) per month for a five year contract. According to a Cyberdyne spokesperson, a branch has been set up in Denmark and they are in planning stages to market HAL™ in Europe but a launch date is unknown. If visiting Japan, westerners may be able to arrange a shorter term rental by contacting the company.
But that is not all. Berkeley Bionics is developing eLegs (exoskeleton lower extremity gait system) for the disability market. eLegs is a follow-up to HULC, an exoskeleton which was developed by Berkeley Bionics and licensed to Lockheed Martin for the military market. However, eLegs will likely be the fourth exoskeleton to come to market, as it is only entering into Clincial trail stage. Clinical trials for eLegs are scheduled for early 2011 at selected rehabilitation clinics across the United States.
Lifesuit is very much a protype and looks it. It is apparently some years off When asked when a production model would be ready for market, Monty Reed from Lifesuit responded "I have made a point not to promise a delivery until I know it will be ready. As you may have noticed many tech items are promised and do not get delivered. I do not want to confuse anyone or disappoint" (the person demonstrating the Lifesuit below is Mr Reed, company owner and not a wheelchair user).
Raytheon Sarcos Exoskeleton, like the Lockheed Martin exoskeleton is focused on the defense market. This was confirmed by a Raytheon Spokesperson Corinne Kovalsky who informed me: "Right now, it's being developed for the military to help with logistics. There are no plans at present for it to be re-purposed in any way":
Honda also has an assisted walking device in development, though as mentioned in the video below, it will be for some wheelchair users but not be for people with spinal cord injuries:
Since at least three exoskeletons for wheelchair users will be on the market in 2010, it seems like this technology is no longer science fiction, but rather fact. The main problem will be the price. We all know what happened to the IBOT, the amazing futuristic wheelchair which was so expensive that it sold only a few hundred models and eventually it failed.
Initially sales of exoskeleton suits will be limited to the very wealthy and to Rehab and Physical Therapy Units. But with so many companies focused on developing exoskeletons it will not be long before competition and technological advances bring prices down to a level where more can afford one. Or perhaps groups of people with disabilities can contribute money and split the time with it like a timeshare. Whatever happens, it will be exciting to see if the exoskeleton can be the breakthough that many have promised for so long. In any case, we will no longer have to wait and see.
Read more about exoskeletons for wheelchair users on the Exoskeleton Website.
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