This isn’t the first time science fact has caught up with science fiction.
And in this case, the technology provides an incredible opportunity for people who can’t walk to walk again–without looking like a creature from another planet.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for approving medical devices for use in the United States. It has recently approved a personal exoskeleton for people who have lost use of their legs–the first of its kind, called ReWalk.
The computer and battery components of the device weigh about five pounds and strap to the user’s back. The backpack is connected to straps around the legs; the leg braces weigh forty-six pounds but are self-supporting.
A device located on the wrist has buttons for the wearer to select sitting, standing, or walking mode. The battery can operate for continuous walking for up to four hours; intermittent walking with sitting and standing can extend the life for a full day.
The ReWalk can help people between 5’3″ and 6’3″ weighing less than 220 pounds.
The use of prosthetics isn’t new.
Wood, metal, and synthetic apparatus have been used in the past to replace limbs. Their practical use, however, was severely limited.
Current prosthetics employ: Bluetooth technology so limbs can communicate with each other; microprocessors in knees to moderate pressure; myoelectric sensors for muscle control; and connected controlling devices activated by adjacent muscles through conscious movement.
Prosthetics’ advanced technology using carbon fiber was allowed in the last Olympics’ track and field 400-meter race, making history. A new study documents the development and use of a prosthetic hand that can actually “feel” an object by electrically stimulating ulnar nerves.
What the exoskeleton does that limb prosthetics don’t do is provide the ability to walk for people who have suffered spinal injury, cutting off use of the lower extremities.
Although the FDA has approved the new device, medical insurance has not yet been expanded to cover the cost, which is currently almost $70,000. The manufacturers are working with insurers to change that.
Research continues to expand and improve prosthetics, which have evolved way past simply strapping on a wooden leg. Incorporating robotics, electrical sensors, and new synthetic materials continue to advance the quality of life for those who have suffered limb loss.
Exploration into “brain computer interfaces” sounds very Philip K. Dick-ish but is a reality in this twenty-first century.
The use of exoskeletons advances as well, although their access to everyday people will probably be limited for quite a while due to their high cost. In addition to the ReWalk, current exoskeleton technology is being used in combat and situations involving hazardous conditions for humans:
“Maybe there’s something heartening going on here. Maybe as we build a future that keeps the human in the exoskeleton equation, we’ll dream of advancements that avoid the monstrous side of the possibilities, and we’ll keep exoskeletons where they serve us best—in awesome science-fiction movies.
Here’s what an actual user has to say about this.