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Robotic exoskeleton helps paralyzed student walk

Sharon Gaudin | May 16, 2011
UC Berkeley graduating senior crosses stage with robotic help to receive diploma

Thanks to university researchers and a metal robotic exoskeleton, a paralyzed student at UC Berkeley was able to walk across the stage to receive his diploma over the weekend.

Graduating senior Austin Whitney, a paraplegic since a 2007 car accident, used a walker with a control switch directing the exoskeleton strapped around his legs. While he was walking across the stage -- to great cheers from fellow graduates and the audience -- Whitney was followed by the researchers who built the robotic device allowing him to once again move his legs.

"The second I pressed the button and stood up, I was flooded with a series of emotions," Whitney told UC Berkeley's media office. "It was overpowering.... I've stood in the [exoskeleton] machine a lot of times before, but I knew that it would be different up here [on stage], and it truly was."

The robotic exoskeleton is the creation of Homayoon Kazerooni, a Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering, and his team of researchers. The university engineers have been creating exoskeletons, or wearable robots in the form of leg braces, to help paraplegics walk again.

Kazerooni began his work in 2000 when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded his research to help soldiers carry heavy loads for longer periods of time. The research team unveiled that military-focused machine in 2004. Then in 2010 researchers took the wraps off what they dubbed eLegs, an exoskeleton specifically designed to help paraplegics.

There has been an increasing amount of research going into creating agile and strong exoskeletons in the past several years.

In 2009, Cyberdyne Inc., a Japan-based company, built what it called Robot Suit HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) - a cyborg-type robotic suit.

That exoskeleton, which is worn much like the suit in the movie Iron Man, is built to be used in medical rehabilitation or to help people who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury, for example. It also could be used for people doing physically demanding work in factories or at disaster sites, according to Cyberdyne.

HAL reportedly could make a wearer two to 10 times stronger than normal.

In a related area, researchers at the University of Washington announced in 2008 that they were working to reroute brain signals in an effort to give paralyzed people the ability to move their limbs again. Scientists said they were restoring voluntary movement to the once-paralyzed limbs by creating an artificial connection between muscles and the brain's nerve cells.

 

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