Paralyzed from the waist down after a BMX accident, Steven Sanchez rolled into SuitX’s Berkeley, California, office in a wheelchair. A half-hour later he was standing and walking thanks to the Phoenix—a robotic exoskeleton now available for around $40,000.
The suit returns movement to wearers’ hips and knees with small motors attached to standard orthotics. Wearers can control the movement of each leg and walk at up to 1.1 miles per hour by pushing buttons integrated into a pair of crutches.
At 27 pounds, the Phoenix is among the lightest and cheapest medical exoskeletons. It also has unique abilities; the suit is modular and adjustable so it can adapt to, say, a relatively tall person who just needs mobility assistance for one knee.
A battery pack worn as a backpack powers the exoskeleton for up to eight hours. An app can be used to track the patient’s walking data. SuitX has mainly worked with patients with spinal cord injuries, who can use the Phoenix to walk again.
“We can’t really fix their disease. We can’t fix their injury. But what it would do is postpone the secondary injuries due to sitting,” says SuitX founder and CEO Homayoon Kazerooni. “It gives a better quality of life.”
The technology behind SuitX’s industrial and medical exoskeleton originated at the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, which Kazerooni leads. He said his major goal is to build a version of the exoskeleton for children. Children with neurological disorders sometimes need intensive walking training or can risk losing their mobility.
The device could also have therapeutic benefits for people who have experienced a stroke or other motor injury, but more research needs to be conducted.
SuitX is just one of the companies hoping to boost interest in exoskeleton research. Competing suits like the ReWalk, which costs $70,000 and weighs about 50 pounds, are striving to reduce costs while improving functionality. If exoskeleton makers can drive suit costs down to a few thousand dollars, they could start competing with motorized wheelchairs (see “The Exoskeletons Are Coming”).
Volker Bartenbach, an exoskeleton researcher at ETH Zurich, says a combination of performance, price, and clinically proven benefits will give rise to the first widely adopted exoskeleton.
“Speed, operating time, mobility, and usability have to be good enough so that those systems are perceived as better by the user than the alternatives,” Bartenbach says. “If you need 10 minutes to walk to the bakery 300 feet away in your exoskeleton that takes five minutes to put on, you will probably use the wheelchair instead.”
Sanchez travels the world with SuitX demoing the Phoenix exoskeleton. A picture above the entrance to the company’s office features Sanchez, standing upright, smiling in front of the Colosseum in Rome. But during an evening in late January, he was just interested in the chance to extend and stretch his body.
Standing is an essential exercise for Sanchez if he wants to avoid sores and other injuries. Before Phoenix, he was training to kill the nerves in his hands so he could spend more time supporting his body’s weight while walking with crutches.
The custom carbon-fiber orthotics that hold the Phoenix to his body just look like braces. The device’s movements make no noise. The most noticeable part of the getup is the crutches. The Phoenix still needs too much maintenance for Sanchez to take one home, but he’s hopeful that SuitX will give him a unit someday.
“If I had this it would change a lot of things,” Sanchez says. “It’s a necessity at this point.”