This Powered Exoskeleton Lets Paraplegics Walk Again

The lightweight Indego Exoskeleton is less Robocop than you'd imagine for something so powerful that it lets paraplegics walk again, using a Segway-like functionality.

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.

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.

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  • Kathy Rote

    I had polio at 2mo.s old and grew up walking on long leg braces and canes and so, developed so much facility doing it that I climbed flights of stairs, walked up and downhills, etc. with the strength of trunk, shoulders and arms. So my body differs from spine.cord injury paraplegic's in that my legs did not develop full musculature and length, but my upper body is like an athletes. I'm only 5'1" tall, and went to using a w/chair at 50 yrs. old. Weight gain is only 1 of the many problems I work with from sitting. Though older and heavier, I still have upper body strength superior to my able bodied peers and would do anything for this device. I'm wondering if it will work for others, like me, whose paraplegia is caused by disabilities other than spinal cord injury. Will they adjust for someone whose legs are not proportionate to their torso ?

  • Kari Uhlman

    Can this work for a person with ataxia? My younger brother is a brain trauma survivor.

  • Frenchfarmer

    As long as the person can lean forward, back and side to side with the upper body it should work to some degree even if only to help the circulation and reduce atrophy.
    I can foresee ones that a carer can operate from a smartphone until the user learns how to.
    Endless whenever one's weight pushed down, as in sitting or even crouching, the energy could be used to gently resist by regenerating power to the batteries.

  • Kari Uhlman

    Really appreciate the response. I will print this out and take it to my younger brother. I hope Kaiser would cover this type of equipment.