Boxtel strode onto a stage in San Francisco this morning without the use of her wheelchair, draped in a 45-pound bionic exoskeleton that guided her leg movements using computer sensors.
The invention, called eLEGS, or Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System, was unveiled by Berkeley Bionics, an East Bay company founded in 2005. The firm has previously developed bionic exoskeletons for military use.
Though the system requires the use of “smart” crutches as well, Boxtel said that simply being able to walk upright again and engage other people at eye level was a special feeling.
“With every step, I feel more confident, and I feel liberated,” she said, smiling.
Boxtel said she had trained on eLEGS for about 20 hours so far.
“The exoskeleton works with me, and so I surrender to it,” she said, adding that she shifts her weight to keep the momentum going.
Berkeley Bionics CEO Eythor Bender called the product “revolutionary.” He said he intends to use it first at rehabilitation clinics in the United States, beginning in late summer 2011.
“Today I am going to rekindle a hope among (the) spinal-cord injured and others,” he said.
Bender said eLEGS was designed for people with arm and hand strength, which are needed for getting into the device.
He said the exoskeleton is easy to put on and remove, and that is offers a quiet, natural gait. The system has a rechargeable battery that can last for a day.
Dr. Akshat Shah, chief of spinal cord and orthopedic rehabilitation at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, also presented at today’s event. He said that when his patients suffering from paralysis ask if they will ever walk again, the answer for most is no.
“The eLEGS represents a huge jump in overcoming disease and disability in our lifetime,” he said. “Now, more often than not, the answer can be yes.”
According to Bender, most robotic devices in rehabilitation clinics today cost between $250,000 and $400,000.
“We will be much lower than that,” he said.
Bender said he hoped eLEGS would be available for personal use by 2013, and that the price would be “very competitive to high-end wheelchairs,” which run as high as $50,000, he said.
Boxtel envisioned herself one day hiking in the mountains or walking on the beach in her native Australia.
“I am living my dream,” she said.
Ari Burack, Bay City News