Wearable robots getting lighter, more portable

May 09, 2013 by Carla K. Johnson
In this May 6, 2013 photo, Michael Gore, center, who is paralyzed from a spinal injury, walks with the use of the Indego wearable robot under the supervision of physical therapist Clare Hartigan during a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association at a downtown hotel in Chicago. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, but with the aid of the 27-pound gadget that snaps together from pieces that fit into a backpack he stands and walks with the assistance of science and engineering. The device is among several competing products that hold promise for people with spinal injuries, like Gore, and for people with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy or for those recovering from strokes. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

When Michael Gore stands, it's a triumph of science and engineering. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, yet he rises from his wheelchair and walks across the room with help from a lightweight wearable robot.

The technology has many . Besides "wearable robot," the inventions also are called "electronic legs" or "powered exoskeletons." This version, called Indego, is among several competing products being used and tested in U.S. rehab hospitals that hold promise not only for people such as Gore with spinal injuries, but also those recovering from strokes or afflicted with and .

Still at least a year away from the market, the 27-pound (12.25-kilogram) Indego is the lightest of the powered exoskeletons. It snaps together from pieces that fit into a backpack. The goal is for the user to be able to carry it on a wheelchair, put it together, strap it on and walk independently. None of the products, including the Indego, are yet approved by U.S.l regulators for personal use, meaning they must be used under the supervision of a physical therapist.

Gore, 42, of Whiteville, North Carolina, demonstrated the device this week at the American Spinal Injury Association meeting in Chicago, successfully negotiating a noisy, crowded hallway of and people with in wheelchairs.

When he leans forward, the device takes a first step. When he tilts from side to side, it walks. When Gore wants to stop, he leans back and the robotic leg braces come to a halt. Gore uses forearm crutches for balance. A battery in the hip piece powers the motors in the robotic legs.

"Being able to speak with you eye-to-eye is just a big emotional boost," Gore said to a reporter. "Being able to walk up to you and say hello is not a big thing until you cannot do it."

In this May 6, 2013 photo, Michael Gore, center, who is paralyzed from a spinal injury, walks with the use of the Indego wearable robot under the supervision of physical therapist Clare Hartigan during a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association at a downtown hotel in Chicago. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, but with the aid of the 27-pound gadget that snaps together from pieces that fit into a backpack he stands and walks with the assistance of science and engineering. The device is among several competing products that hold promise for people with spinal injuries, like Gore, and for people with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy or for those recovering from strokes. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The devices won't replace , which are faster. None of the devices are speedy enough, for example, for a paralyzed person to walk across a street before the light changes, said Arun Jayaraman of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who is testing a number of similar devices.

"None of them have fall prevention technology," Jayaraman said. "If the person falls, they can hurt themselves badly. If you fall down, how do you get off a robot that is strapped into you?" They need to be even lighter and have longer-lasting batteries, he said.

In this May 6, 2013 photo, Jennifer French, center, questions, Michael Gore, who is paralyzed from a spinal injury walking with the use of the Indego wearable robot under the supervision of physical therapist Clare Hartigan, second from left, during a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association at a downtown hotel in Chicago. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, but with the aid of the 27-pound gadget that snaps together from pieces that fit into a backpack he stands and walks with the assistance of science and engineering. The device is among several competing products that hold promise for people with spinal injuries, like Gore, and for people with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy or for those recovering from strokes. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Still, Jayaraman said, the devices might help prevent pressure sores from sitting too long in a wheelchair, improve heart health, develop muscle strength, lift depression and ultimately bring down medical costs by keeping healthier patients out of the hospital.

Companies in Israel, New Zealand and California make competing devices, and all the products are becoming less bulky as they are refined. The Indego was invented at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and tested at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. It's now licensed to Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin Corp., which makes precision engineered products like aircraft wheels and brakes.

In this May 6, 2013 photo, Michael Gore, center, who is paralyzed from a spinal injury, walks with the use of the Indego wearable robot during a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association at a downtown hotel in Chicago. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, but with the aid of the 27-pound gadget that snaps together from pieces that fit into a backpack he stands and walks with the assistance of science and engineering. The device is among several competing products that hold promise for people with spinal injuries, like Gore, and for people with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy or for those recovering from strokes. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Like many other research participants in clinical studies, Gore receives a stipend for his participation from Vanderbilt University.

It's unclear exactly how much the devices will cost if they become available for personal use. Some technology news media reports have said $50,000 (€38,000) to $75,000 (€57,000). Indego's makers want to bring the cost below that, said co-inventor Ryan Farris of Parker Hannifin. Experts say it will take years of research to prove health benefits before Medicare and private insurance companies would consider covering the expense.

In this May 6, 2013 photo, Michael Goldfarb, left, and Ryan Farris, co-inventors of the Indego wearable robot, speak during a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association at a downtown hotel in Chicago. Their 27-pound invention snaps together from pieces and fits into a backpack and their goal is for the user to be able to carry it on a wheelchair, put it together, strap it on and walk independently. The device is among several competing products that hold promise for people with spinal injuries, like Gore, and for people with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy or for those recovering from strokes. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Paul Tobin, president of the nonprofit advocacy group United Spinal, said wearable robots present an exciting opportunity but that patients should keep their expectations realistic.

"It's going to be critical that people have a thorough medical evaluation before trying something like this, especially if they've been injured for some time," Tobin said. "It won't be appropriate for everyone. For some people, it will be a godsend."

Explore further: SRI microrobots show fast-building factory approach (w/ video)

5 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Human brain treats prosthetic devices as part of the body

Mar 06, 2013

People with spinal cord injuries show strong association of wheelchairs as part of their body, not extension of immobile limbs injuries show strong association of wheelchairs as part of their body, not extension of immobile ...

Recommended for you

Simplicity is key to co-operative robots

19 hours ago

A way of making hundreds—or even thousands—of tiny robots cluster to carry out tasks without using any memory or processing power has been developed by engineers at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Students turn $250 wheelchair into geo-positioning robot

Apr 16, 2014

Talk about your Craigslist finds! A team of student employees at The University of Alabama in Huntsville's Systems Management and Production Center (SMAP) combined inspiration with innovation to make a $250 ...

Using robots to study evolution

Apr 14, 2014

A new paper by OIST's Neural Computation Unit has demonstrated the usefulness of robots in studying evolution. Published in PLOS ONE, Stefan Elfwing, a researcher in Professor Kenji Doya's Unit, has succes ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Tiny power plants hold promise for nuclear energy

Small underground nuclear power plants that could be cheaper to build than their behemoth counterparts may herald the future for an energy industry under intense scrutiny since the Fukushima disaster, the ...

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...