When I was in hospital I used to joke with another of the patients that all we needed were ‘The Wrong Trousers’ from Wallace and Gromit and we’d be good to go!
And it turns out that we weren’t actually far off from what has been in the making for several years and is now the latest gadget out there for people with restricted mobility.
Less than a year after my injury I was lucky enough to be recommended by Andy at Prime Physio to become a test pilot for one of the companies who have created their own exoskeleton. Ekso Bionics have been creating exoskeletons since about 2000 when they created devices to help people carry heavy loads, in particular the US Army. These suits were called HULC exoskeletons (Human Universal Load Carrier) and allowed soldiers to carry up to 200lbs at a top speed of 10mph for several hours. This is possible due to the nature of an exoskeleton; the weight of the load bypasses the user and is carried by the exoskeleton. It’s pretty clever physics, but basically for me it means the chance to get up and walk again, albeit with a pair of robotic battery powered legs.
I got my first taste of this amazing technology after passing the medical screening and I have to say it was pretty cool to be at normal height again without the aid of a standing frame. Ok so there was someone behind me making sure I didn’t fall and to take steps it required a second person to press the ‘Step’ button, but when I think about it it is pretty incredible; for someone who doesn’t having working legs to be up and walking is kind of amazing. It just felt so natural and normal, and thankfully I picked up the technique quite quickly and progressed from walking with a zimmer frame to crutches within a couple of sessions.
The company have since advanced their technology, which hands the controls over to me. Either I click a button on the crutches to initiate the exoskeleton to take a step, or the most advanced mode where it automatically takes the step when it senses the user is in the correct position. The positioning is vital to get it right; you have to shift slightly to each side and forwards (as you would if you were walking normally). This frees up the other leg so that it can take the step. But the weight shift is very subtle, and it is is so easy to over-shift and lose balance (hence the need for the physio behind me). Eventually there is no need for the extra help and the user can wander around alone… but that requires more confidence than I have at the moment!
Walking in the exoskeleton has been such an amazing experience for me. I went to various demonstrations and had a few TV/radio interviews to show off the piece of technology, and all the hours I built up walking have been so beneficial in other aspects of my rehab.
My CNN TV debut can be found here and it explains the technology and its potential pretty well. I have still refused to watch it as I hate seeing and hearing myself on video!!
I really do believe that exoskeletons offer some amazing potential for the future. I’m sure everyone saw Claire Lomas walk the London Marathon in an exoskeleton.. That was so incredible to see. I know just how exhausting it can be, so the fact that she did it in pouring rain and on the crazy uneven London pavements just makes it even more awesome. Her suit is made by a different company, and there are a couple more as well, and this competition will hopefully bring the price tag down and make exoskeletons a more realistic option for people. They currently cost around £100 000 to buy a personal exoskeleton.. pretty pricey!
The bulkiness of the suit and it’s lack of ability to go up and down stairs etc is also an issue, but I can’t be too picky I guess! The technology is advancing so quickly that it is only a matter of time before exoskeletons are suggested instead of wheelchairs, although maybe not on the NHS quite yet.
For me, the exoskeleton put a massive smile on my face and gave me a skill to remaster. I don’t walk in the way that everyone else does, and I like to have someone behind me in case I lose my balance, but still, I am at eye level with people again and I feel normal. The way that it makes people feel cannot be faulted in any way. I am yet to see someone who walks in it to not have a massive grin on their face and be pretty proud of the fact that they are up and taking steps again.