Victims of spinal cord injuries and paralysis go from being bound to wheelchairs to being able to walk again thanks to robotic suits and exoskeletons.
Wearable bionic suits and robotic exoskeletons are giving stroke patients, paraplegics and spinal cord injury victims real hope of walking again.
Ekso Bionics and Argo Medical Technologies are two of the companies at the forefront of wearable gait assistance technology developed by researchers.
Studies have been done before to help patients walk again. But only now did these studies come to fruition and the two pioneering companies to bring research into practical, real-world applications that can be used in rehab facilities and at home.
Argo Medical said that it is beginning to market its ReWalk suit to the U.S. after being initially made available in Europe.
Ekso Bionics meanwhile is planning to expand the use of its exoskeleton suits to more facilities in the U.S.
How does ReWalk work?
Argo's ReWalk is a walking assistance system with powered leg attachments that allow users to stand upright, walk and even climb stairs.
The power comes from a battery inside a backpack worn by the user, who places limp legs into braces with Velcro straps to secure the limbs.
The contraption allows the user to stand upright and then detects motion when the patient leans forward.
The leg attachments then propel the user to take a step forward by drawing power from the backpack battery and simulating the sensors in the body to detect forward motion.
How does Ekso Bionics suit work?
The suit works in similar fashion as the ReWalk, moving the artificial leg contraption by sensing the shift in weight and swaying of the hips done by the patient to trigger a step.
Users have control over how to initiate steps by pushing buttons and the software detects movement.
Technology used for the Ekso Bionics walker emanated from research done in a robotics lab in the University of California with help from Lockheed Martin. ReWalk is a product of a decade of research and development.
Both products have been previously available only in prototypes before and used in trials.
Before, wearable suits like these were only available for institutions and large rehab centers. However, variants designed for personal and everyday use are now being made available.
The Ekso Bionics suit costs $100,000 while ReWalk said its new models will cost around $65,000 in the United States.
While prohibitive for now, the costs will likely come down as more patients choose to make use of the new technology. These patients may have suffered from stroke, spinal cord injury, cysts or congenital anomalies, but each patient may have different needs.
"There's a decent amount of heterogeneity in the population of people with spinal cord injury,"
said Michael Goldfarb, professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University.
"Some of those systems are going to be better suited to some people, and other systems are going to be better suited to other people."
Vanderbilt and its partner Parker Hannifin Corp. are developing their own robotic suit that can is portable enough to be stored inside a bag and will feature electrical stimulation to the limbs.
Bionic exoskeleton suits literally represent another step for robotics and wearable technology that can help a lot of patients.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama, up to 273,000 people in the United States suffered spinal cord injuries in 2013.
Many are wheelchair-bound or bedridden without hope of walking again. That is now changing as wearable bionic exoskeletons make their way from rehab centers to their homes.