On a weekday morning in June, 50 people gather at the launch of a new technology shop in a science park outside Cambridge. Dubbed a “store opening” by its hosts, the US firm Ekso, it is quite unlike most retail events. There are no shelves, tills, or counters; no free samples or catalogues.
Instead, Ekso suggests that guests – about a quarter of whom are in wheelchairs – might try out one of its devices, in conjunction with the private physiotherapy firm, Prime Physio. Then, in months or years to come, the wealthier among them could walk away with some of Ekso’s kit.
“Technology is reaching the point where those who have been disabled can be re-enabled,” says Andy Hayes, Ekso’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, in his address. A slide of the bionic superhero Iron Man pops up on an accompanying PowerPoint presentation.
Ekso Bionics has produced the first ready-to-wear, motorised exoskeleton to be made commercially available in Britain. Called the Ekso, this battery-powered robot suit enables paraplegics to stand and walk.
Though this technology is at the forefront of the field, the Ekso is not the first of its kind. British disability campaigner Claire Lomas completed the London Marathon earlier this year using an Israeli-made ReWalk suit; Össur, the Icelandic prosthetics firm that makes the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius’s carbon-fibre legs has a line of electrically powered feet and knees; Honda produces a lightweight device for users with minor walking difficulties.
Yet Ekso is notable not only for its technology and the price tag (£100,000 for the exoskeleton which it hopes to lower to £50,000 within the next two years), but its ambitious plans. It sees a time when able-bodied users will be strapping on machines too. In an age when Tony Stark’s exoskeleton tops the box-office charts in Avengers Assemble, and Pistorius competes in both the Olympics and Paralympics, Ekso thinks there’s a demand for robotic suits that not only aid disabled people, but enhance the abilities of everyone.
The firm’s CEO, Eythor Bender, has said he believes exoskeletons are “the jeans of the future”, offering assistance with manual labour. “Shipyard workers could probably only hold a 10kg angle-grinder for a couple of minutes,” says Hayes. “Whereas if they had a bionic suit, they could work for hours and reduce costs.”
Indeed, Ekso’s target market is wide open. In 2005, it produced the Exohiker, a bionic walking aid that allows ramblers to trek with heavier loads. In 2009 it developed and licensed a bionic hiking device, the Human Universal Load Carrier, to US defence firm Lockheed Martin. Next year it will launch a product aimed at people recovering from strokes.
Theoretically, Ekso’s suits could find all sorts of uses. In practice, their applications are more limited. We watch as 24-year-old Suzanne Edwards dons the device and takes a few steps. Edwards had been a surfing instructor until she suffered a spinal cord injury in January 2011. She is delighted to be able to rise from her chair and walk. However, two of Ekso’s staff have to guide her movements, and it’s hard to see how it could replace her wheelchair permanently.
Ekso doesn’t claim to offer a simple fix for paralysis. Yet it does believe that regular exercise in the suit could help in other ways, such as increasing bone density, improving bladder functions, and aiding weight loss.
However, not everyone in the audience is convinced. Dr Roger Fitzwater was a general practitioner for 25 years until he broke his back in a building accident two decades ago. After the Ekso event he explains his misgivings. “It’s a fantastic piece of engineering,” he says, “and clearly a work in progress.” Yet he still feels Ekso’s emphasis on getting wheelchair users to walk again is misplaced.
“What people don’t understand is that once you’ve become accustomed to your paraplegia, walking isn’t very important,” says Fitzwater. “If you’re in pain, that’s the most important thing. Then its bladder function, then bowels, then sex, then body image.”
“When you see what robotics can do, it’s moving forward very fast. I can see it getting a lot better, and having applications in other fields. It’s great that they produced it,” he adds. “But at the moment it’s only for people with big compensation payouts.”
There are many reasons to suggest that exoskeletons won’t catch on. Yet as technology progresses and prices drop, the bionic age appears to be beckoning. So, why shouldn’t a firm like Ekso make a suit to aid paraplegics? Or a suit for office workers to commute in? Or indeed, a suit for soldiers, runners, and anyone else who has the means and ambition to augment their body? With every passing month, in the field of bionics, the “why not?” question is getting harder to answer.
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