Paralyzed jockey walks again with help from bionic suit

After a riding accident left him without the use of his legs, Irish jockey Jonjo Bright thought he'd never walk again. Then he stepped into the Ekso suit.

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Derived from work with the military, the Ekso bionic suit helps paralyzed people walk again. Esko Bionics

Irish jockey Jonjo Bright has been paralyzed from the neck down since a riding accident in March 2013. He never thought he would walk again, but then he donned a bionic suit from Ekso Bionics and joined the increasing ranks of those benefiting from today's machine-aided mobility devices.

"I didn't think I would be able to use it because I'm quite a high level injury, so when I began to walk it was a great feeling," Bright told Ireland's Belfast Telegraph. "It felt very natural, not robotic like you would think."

The suit has three levels of operation to assist mobility-challenged individuals. In one, a physical therapist actuates each step by pushing a button. In the second, the patient controls the button and makes each step happen on his or her own. In another, the robotic assistance of the suit is actuated when the user shifts weight -- no buttons needed.

"Ekso's what we call a human exoskeleton," said Ekso's CEO Nathan Harding in a video about his company's invention. "It's basically a wearable robot."

Exoskeletons were once only found in the domain of science fiction, but they're steadily moving out of Tony Stark's labs and into the very real world, helping people conquer what were once insurmountable injuries.

Ekso has helped a paralyzed skier walk again with the help of a 3D-printed exoskeleton, and the FDA has just cleared the ReWalk exoskeleton, which enables paraplegics to walk again, for purchase by individuals, not just institutions. Researchers have even modified a Rex Bionics exoskeleton with an EEG cap that reads the brain's electrical activity to test the possibility of mind-controlled robotic exoskeletons.

In another example of tech bestowing renewed mobility, a company known as Biom has created a bionic ankle that allowed a dancer who lost her foot in the Boston City bombing take to the dance floor again. We've also seen a robotic arm that gives an amputee drummer the ability to produce beats at a higher level than before he lost his arm, and at this year's World Cup, a paralyzed man was able to kick a ball using an exoskeleton controlled by his mind during opening ceremonies.

The Esko suit grew out of Ekso Bionic's work on the HULC project with the U.S. military. HULC stands for Human Universal Load Carrier and allows soldiers to more easily carry loads of up to 200 pounds without getting injured.

One of the unexpected benefits of the suit for Bright was that he didn't get the lightheadedness that often comes when he is put in an upright position, as the mechanized suit helped raise, lower, and support him.

"It is an incredible piece of kit," the 20-year-old said. "Usually when I stand my blood pressure would be low and I would get a sore head and become dizzy. In this suit the muscles are moving and blood is being pumped around the body. To be upright and walking and not feeling that horrible dizzy feeling is incredible."

About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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