For years, movies have featured these robotic structures that carry people in them but still mimicking the movement of the human body. Avatar, The Edge of Tomorrow, Elysium and Matrix III all depicted them in a way it felt like it would always remain science fiction.
Exoskeletons are robotic structures that are attached to the joints in order to substitute muscle power when it’s needed. It contains a computer in the backpack which can power the robotic components for hours. The prototypes couldn’t really mimic the way we walk but it’s getting better; the elements are getting thinner and the energy source is getting stronger.
A good friend of mine, Remco Hoogendijk, Innovation manager of Sint Maartenskliniek, just told me a fantastic story. They had their first patient taking his exoskeleton home. This basically is the end of an 8 weeks-long training program and the exoskeleton they use is the ReWalk 6.0.
The patient is Ruben de Sain, a great guy how has had a Spinal Cord Injury ten years ago. That hasn’t stopped him in life. He works as a car salesman in a Seat garage and he loves to go skiing with his friends.
The device is not yet widely available and costs are high. Some patients turn to crowdfunding the required money for their exoskeleton, while payors might cover it for others. Using such a technology would mean that patients could go back to work and live a normal life without the constant help and supervision of caregivers. With 3D printing methods, the production costs of the elements could go down too. These directions paint a bright future.
Ekso Bionics and ReWalk have been the major players, the latter even having an FDA approval. DARPA presented exoskeleton elements that can help soldiers run tirelessly or jump higher. As this technology keeps on improving, the question soon will not be whether paralyzed people can walk again, but them walking faster than healthy people.