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29th March 2016

Paraplegic to use robotic legs to stand for wedding vows

Ben Barnes was told he would never walk again after a car accident that paralyzed both legs. Now he’s looking forward to walking the wedding aisle, with a little help from medtech.

Ben is among a small number of people using a new type of walking device called a robotic exoskeleton. Strong enough to move a 100kg person, it is battery-operated and controlled by a joystick.

Many users report feeling euphoric when they first stand up with their bionic legs. “It’s great,” says Barnes, who had a roofing business in Canterbury, U.K., before his 2011 accident put him in a wheelchair.

Standing up brings “a massive energy rush” as blood flows unimpeded through the body, Barnes says. He reports a huge psychological boost from being at eye level with other people.

The exoskeleton Ben uses was designed by Robert Irving and Richard Little, high-school mates from the Scottish Highlands who stayed in touch as they embarked on engineering careers and resettled in New Zealand. When Robert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he confided in Richard. “It meant a very good chance of me being in a wheelchair,” Robert says. “We both thought that wasn’t a very good idea.”

The mothers of both men are confined to wheelchairs, and the friends had seen first-hand the harmful effects on health and mental outlook.

“We sat in a pub and had a pint and sketched out what we imagined,” says Richard. Then they went home to their garages and went to work.

They wanted their invention to move forward, backward, sideways and in a circle. They wanted it to handle stairs. It had to sit and stand so a user could easily move into it from a wheelchair. And they wanted it to be user-controlled, self-balancing, crutch-free, and as light as possible.

After four years, they had a prototype. “It had wooden feet and a drainpipe for an arm, but it could sit, and it could stand, and it could kind of walk,” Little recalled in a talk at Café Scientifique Auckland.

Investors were impressed.

The current version of the exoskeleton is sleek and black. Ten small motors with microprocessors and sensors are networked with a master controller. Smart algorithms adjust gait and stance to ensure stability.

Today, the exoskeleton is used by physical rehabilitation clinics and individuals worldwide. A clinical trial is proceeding. Under a U.S. military contract signed March 10, exoskeletons will be developed to help amputees exercise as they prepare for artificial limbs.

Fortunately, Robert’s MS has not progressed, and he can walk without assistance. Neither his mother nor Richard’s have wanted to try the exoskeleton as yet. Many others, however, are smiling thanks to the vision and perseverance of the two friends.