UC Berkeley researchers developing bionic suit for mobile independence

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Homayoon Kazerooni/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley researchers are searching for ways to help paraplegic people walk using bionic technology.

Homayoon Kazerooni, a campus professor of mechanical engineering, and his team of researchers are working to build an affordable exoskeleton that will help paraplegic people walk during their everyday lives. A similar device will debut at the beginning of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on Thursday, when a paraplegic man in a robotic exoskeleton will make the opening kick.

While both suits allow for mobility, Kazerooni’s exoskeleton has a more immediate focus. Priced at about $20,000 and weighing 22 pounds, his exoskeleton supports the wearer’s legs, along with crutches equipped with sensors and a computer on the back to further assist with movement.

In contrast, the exoskeleton that will appear at the World Cup is mind-controlled, allowing the wearer to manipulate movement through signals from the brain. Though Kazerooni praised the sophistication of the technology behind the mind-controlled exoskeleton, he said to be able to walk, paraplegic individuals do not necessarily require such complex engineering.

“Doing advanced research may not reach a large community of people quickly enough,” Kazerooni said, emphasizing that “basic science and engineering” is necessary to make the exoskeletons more immediately accessible.

The current generation of the exoskeleton allows users to walk at slow speeds and to be more independent. The end goal, Kazerooni said, is for someone wearing the device to be able to perform “limited maneuvers, but being done robustly and simply,” such as walking to a bus stop or getting into a vehicle.

Aside from assisting paraplegic people, Kazerooni’s exoskeleton also seeks to help individuals working physically demanding jobs to carry out their day-to-day tasks without becoming as tired.

The team aims to make the suit available for medical and clinical use soon, according to Michael McKinley, a postdoctoral researcher who has been contributing to the project since 2011, when a suit built by Kazerooni and his researchers helped UC Berkeley alumnus Austin Whitney walk across the stage during his graduation.

“(Wearing the exoskeleton) feels like you’re a high school kid wearing a backpack with a binder or something light,” said Steven Sanchez, a test pilot for the researchers. “When you’re standing there, you don’t even notice the weight of it.”

Sanchez, who has worked with Kazerooni’s team since mid-July of 2012 to help refine the suit, said he could easily walk about an average of 100 yards while wearing the exoskeleton.

“It’s my dream to see paraplegics get on the plane, walk on the aisles of the plane, get to the bathroom and maneuver to the tables of a restaurant,” Kazerooni said. “I want to give them that independence, and I want it to be done very faithfully.”

Contact Lydia Tuan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.