In February 2002, Michael Gore broke his back in a work accident and lost all function and feeling in his legs. Using the Indego Exoskeleton, a device at the forefront of wearable robotics, Gore can now get up and walk again (see video).
With the Indego, patients with spinal cord injuries or with other motor problems strap their lower bodies into a piece of equipment that looks like leg braces. The Indego, however, uses sophisticated technology that does much more than just provide support. Gyroscopes and accelerators anticipate a patient's steps by subtle upper body motion—similar to how a Segway works. Then, the Indego moves in concert with the patient’s leg to take a step. The wearer is using their own muscles to do the work, with a little extra help.
Beyond providing mobility, Indego can be used for recovery. Using electrodes and functional electrical stimulation (FES), patients can use the exoskeleton in physical training, helping the body recover from injury. Sensors determine how much power is needed, eventually decreasing as the patient grows stronger.
People who become wheelchair-bound have a shorter life expectancy because of secondary issues that come along with decreased mobility. Indego helps reverse that by improving circulation, preventing loss of bone density and reducing muscle atrophy. “Frankly, this is going to make people live longer,” said co-creator Ryan Farris.
The design is sleek, weighs just 27 pounds, and is less Robocop than you’d expect something so powerful to look. It's small enough to be broken down and put away into a duffle bag, which Farris said was an important user experience goal—the Indego is suppose to allow patients to use it by themselves.
"The first time I stood with the Vanderbilt exoskeleton [there were] different emotions...there was joy. It really works. It's that natural feeling," says Gore. "You never forget how to walk, even though I can't, and the feeling is not any different."
Next spring, the next generation of Indegos will be available for clinics to buy, three for $150,000 or individually for $75,000. In 2015, individuals will be able to buy their own. The exoskeleton was designed by the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics at Vanderbilt University, and is being brought to market by motion and control technologies company Parker Hannifin.