Can a robotic exoskeleton make you feel more human? That may sound strange, but that's how Steven Sanchez, a man who became paralyzed from the waist down after a bike accident, describes how it feels when he’s testing the Phoenix suit. His wheelchair gets him around, but it doesn’t make him feel the same as standing up and being at eye level as the motorized suit does.
Advances in robotics are paving the way for the creation of wearable motorized exoskeletons that are approaching a price, around $40,000, that could be affordable to those who suffer from mobility disorders and need a wheelchair to get around.
The Phoenix suit, created by SuitX, is a good example of cutting edge work in the field, not to mention a clever name. (In mythology, the phoenix is a magical bird known for its capacity to rise again from its ashes.) The exoskeleton is modular, which allows the wearer to add or remove each piece independently. It only weighs 27 pounds, a more manageable burden for extended periods of time than much heavier robotized suits. (For example, a competing model weighs about 50 pounds.)
The interface is said to be intuitive, with buttons integrated into crutches that allow the wearer to control when he wants to stand up, take a step to walk or sit down. Speed will vary from user to user, but one tester has been clocked at 1.1 miles per hour. A single charge of the battery, which is worn in the back, allows four hours of walking (or eight hours of intermittent use), so walking range could in theory be more than 4 miles.
And conveniently, it’s possible to wear the suit while sitting in a wheelchair, giving the wearer multiple ways to get around.
The video below shows the Phoenix exoskeleton in action, including a wearer kicking a soccer ball around:
An earlier version of this motorized exoskeleton was used by Austin Whitney in 2011, when the paralyzed student walked across his graduation stage and received his diploma standing up. It looked like it was a special moment for him, and it's amazing to watch: