The idea of "wearable robots" may seem like something out of a movie, but this technology is already being used in real life.
Started as a project for the military, the exoskeleton has transformed from a device designed to allow soldiers to lift heavy loads and walk further to one that enables people with disabilities to step out of wheelchairs and stand upright.
The "Ekso" is a bionic exoskeleton developed by Ekso Bionics that gives paraplegics upright mobility. While the commercial version of the Ekso has recently been made available to hospitals and rehabilitation centers, the company hopes to make the technology more accessible so that people can use it at home and in their everyday lives, with a personal version releasing in 2014.
CEO Eythor Bender sat down with CNN to talk about Ekso, the bionic exoskeleton he helped develop.
CNN: How many years have you been working on exoskeletons?
Bender: We have been working on exoskeletons for the last 10 years. It started as a project with the military and it was funded by DARPA, the same people who funded the Internet and GPS systems. So it was groundbreaking technology, and in the year 2005 we had a breakthrough in terms of making sure that the weight of the exoskeleton transfers all the way down to the ground. So the user who is wearing it – it usually weighs up to 50 pounds – doesn't feel the weight at all. And that's so important because obviously you are trying to make their lives easier, not more difficult.
CNN: What powers the exoskeleton?
Bender: What we are using here is electric motors, and there are four of them, which is actually quite unique especially when you compare it to (technology used by) amputees. Prosthetics so far have usually had one moving component, and in this case you have in one system four moving components. You have four motors – two sitting at the hips and two at the knees – and that's what you hear.
And it's driven by a battery pack sitting on the back. In the middle, between the two batteries, is a computer and so that is pretty much it. It's an outer frame that pretty much mimics the bone structure. There are 15 sensors in it that almost re-create your nerve system. And then there is the computer, which is really the brain of the whole thing.
CNN: What is your long-term hope or vision for this product in terms of helping people on the medical side?
Bender: Our hope is simply to help people in wheelchairs to live a fuller life. They already live a pretty full life. They can do pretty much anything except they can't walk, and that is such a basic need if you think about it. We all learn to walk even before we learn to talk, and suddenly in the prime of your life you are deprived of that basic need. We are determined to provide at least a tool that people can have, whether it is about walking for part of the day or it is in the recovery phase or rehabilitation or simply in daily living where people want to go about and do things during the day just like an amputee would use a prosthetic leg during the whole day.
CNN: Will the Ekso exoskeleton eventually be available in homes for people to use whenever they want?
Bender: Yes. We see it as a companion during the whole day. It's not going to happen overnight for us to get there. We have been on this journey, working with the best rehab centers around the world improving the Ekso and making it better. But at the same time, through working with users in rehab centers, it is helping us take the first step into homes so that we can develop a product – and it's probably going to be products – that help people not only to gain their health back or get back on their feet, but simply to become a mobility tool similar to the wheelchair. The wheelchair by the way has been around for 1,500 years and it is pretty much the single mobility tool for people that can do pretty much anything else.
(Edythe McNamee and Madison Park contributed to this report.)