Berkeley boffins build cut-price robo-crutches, er, sci-fi exoskeleton

$40,000 price tag half rival models

Phoenix exoskeleton

Exoskeletons designed to help the paralyzed to walk again are usually expensive and bulky, but a startup from University of California at Berkeley has built a lightweight version that's about half the cost of the nearest competitor.

Dubbed Phoenix, the 12.25kg (27lb) exoskeleton uses low-cost motors and some high-end computing power to let the paralyzed walk, albeit at a modest 1.1 miles per hour and using crutches for balance. At $40,000 it's not cheap, but is less than half the price of rival models.

The exoskeleton was built by SuitX, a firm set up by Dr Homayoon Kazerooni, who is also professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. Kazerooni had previously worked on the US military's Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) exoskeleton and set up the new firm with some of his PhD students to bring the technology to the masses.

"We started SuitX out of our passion to develop low-cost consumer bionic products to improve the quality of life for people around the world," Kazerooni said.

"We have tackled problems associated with design, human machine interface (HMI), actuation, power management, and control during the development of our medical exoskeletons. We designed the Phoenix to be accessible and versatile so that it can be used by children."

The suit works via computer-controlled motors in the hips that can be configured by the user for walking, sitting down, or standing. It can also be controlled using buttons on the crutches. An Android interface allows the suit's gait to be customized by a physical therapist using a smartphone.

Getting this kind of mobility is key to long-term health for the paralyzed – avoiding sores that develop from constant wheelchair use – and also for children with cerebral palsy who need help learning to walk when growing up.

At $40,000 the suit is still too expensive, but Kazerooni thinks he can bring the cost and weight down further by refining the design. The work is supported by the National Science Foundation. ®


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