Local Company's Technology Mimics Human Gait

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New technology unveiled by Berkeley Bionics Oct. 7 could allow some previously wheelchair-using patients to stand up and move their legs with the stride of a normal human walk.

The company has been working in conjunction with researchers at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering for about three years to develop the Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System (eLEGS), an untethered exoskeleton for wheelchair users.

Sensors in the device - which feed off manually operated hand crutches - provide patients with the ability to walk by anticipating their movements, according to UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of Berkeley Bionics and adviser of the study.

According to Tim Swift, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the mechanical engineering department who helped develop the technology, mimicking the normal walking traits of a healthy human is one of the primary objectives of the device and also one of its primary difficulties.

"There's a reason nobody else has done this before, and that's because nobody knows how to do it," he said.

"Walking is very difficult."

Anyone with a mobility disorder, possibly including paraplegics and victims of strokes, may benefit from the eLEGS technology, according to Kazerooni.

Berkeley Bionics Vice President of Engineering John Fogelin said the device can support a variety of body types weighing under 220 pounds and ranging from heights of 5-foot-2 to 6-foot-4. He added that in order to use eLEGS at all, patients must have a significant range of motion in their knees and be able to support their own body weight.

"We envision a number of people benefitting from this technology - people who are paralyzed and have an inability to walk will benefit by this device replacing their walk with natural human gait," he said.

Since the inception of Berkeley Bionics in 2005, the company has developed two other devices - the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton and the Human Universal Load Carrier - to substantially increase a subject's ability to carry heavier loads.

But eLEGS is the company's first foray into using its exoskeleton technology for medical use, according to Kazerooni.

The battery-driven eLEGS can sustain four to six hours of continual use and an entire day of normal walking, Fogelin said, and is intended to be used as a complement to a wheelchair as opposed to a replacement.

Swift, who has been working on the eLEGS project for three years, said disabled patients could experience numerous health benefits simply from being vertical, as this technology allows.

Fogelin said the company hopes to find proof of these benefits.

"Are there any medical issues of being confined to a wheelchair? Yes," he said. "It remains to be seen whether eLEGS will fix that."

By July, developers of the technology hope to have it available for use by select rehabilitation clinics across the country. Until then, clinical trials will determine the technology's inefficiencies and pitfalls before its wider release, according to Kazerooni.

The device must first become more robust in terms of design and be available for purchase at a lower cost, Kazerooni said, though an exact price tag has yet to be announced. Fogelin said he hopes the device will eventually be available for in-home use.


Contact J.D. Morris at [email protected]

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