The world watched in awe last year when a paraplegic man strode onto the pitch at the football World Cup and took the first kick. With the assistance of an incredibly hefty, Iron Man-style bodysuit, the man was able to control his movements with his thoughts and even experience the sensation of the strike.
Now, this suit was obviously not intended for consumers, and it’s far from practical for everyday use, but there is a contender out there that is providing paralyzed users with a freedom they probably thought they would never achieve again. That is the ReWalk exoskeleton, brought to the world by medical tech company ReWalk Robotics.
Claimed to be the “most customizable and most researched exoskeleton,” the system was designed to allow those with complete or incomplete leg paralysis, for example from a spinal cord injury, to not only stand up but to walk around independently. Although assistive devices exist in hospitals, this is intended for use outside the clinic, providing people with wheelchair-free access to the places they want to go.
Getting people out of the chair can also provide certain health benefits, with ReWalk’s clinical trials suggesting that standing and ambling in the exoskeleton could improve bladder and bowel function, decrease pain and body fat and reduce fatigue. Studies have also demonstrated that users can move around at speeds of up to 0.71 meters per second; that’s probably about half the speed of your average person, which is pretty impressive.
The exoskeleton consists of leg braces, straps around the waist and legs to evenly distribute body weight, and a backpack to house the processor. It works using an accelerometer that detects subtle changes in the user’s center of gravity. Lean forward slightly and a forward step is initiated, which can be followed by a sequence of fluid steps if the shifts in weight are repeated.
Steps are driven by battery-powered motors and controlled by software in the backpack, which helps move the legs in a way that mimics how humans would naturally walk. And switching between walking and standing mode is as simple as flicking between modes on an accompanying wristwatch.
As the name suggests, this is actually the sixth generation product that ReWalk has created. This particular model allows speeds faster than any other exoskeleton developed, according to the company, and offers better, customized fit that enhances the alignment of the user's joints.
A substantial amount of R&D has gone into this product, so of course it does not come cheap: $77,000, according to IEEE Spectrum. But ReWalk’s website states that it will help customers seek reimbursement, and given the freedom it could provide for many, it seems likely that many will perceive it as a worthy investment.
Center image: Dan W., ReWalker 6.0. ReWalk