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Robotic legs for paraplegics march forward

Berkeley Bionics unveils eLegs, one of a number of bionic exoskeletons that get paraplegics out of their wheelchairs and on their feet.

Amanda Boxtel, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident in 1992, walks across the stage at a press conference in San Francisco, while Berkeley Bionics CEO Eythor Bender (right) and an assistant look on. James Martin/CNET

Amanda Boxtel hasn't walked since a skiing accident left her paralyzed nearly two decades ago.

In the video below, she stands and walks for the first time in 18 years using eLegs, a 45-pound wearable robotic exoskeleton aimed at getting paraplegics out of their wheelchairs and onto their feet. It's an amazing sight.

"To take my first step in the eLegs was just astounding," Boxtel says with tears in her eyes, "because I bent my knee for the first time in 18 years and I placed my heel on the ground. And then I transferred my weight. And then I took another step. And another one. And it was so natural, and that was what really gripped me."

More paraplegics may be following in Boxtel's bionic footsteps. Berkeley Bionics unveiled the eLegs at a press conference in San Francisco today, saying clinical trials of the steel and carbon fiber suit will start next year at select U.S. rehabilitation clinics, with a limited release scheduled during the second half of the year.

The battery-powered, rechargeable system includes a backpack-mounted controller, robotic legs with motorized hips and knee joints, and crutches that employ a gesture-based human-machine interface and sensors to observe the wearer's moves and respond accordingly. Velcro straps, backpack-style clips, and shoulder straps secure eLegs to users over their clothing and everyday shoes.

As with the Robotic Exoskeleton (Rex), a $150,000 robotic suit that recently made its public debut in New Zealand, users of the eLegs must have adequate body strength and functionality to transfer themselves from their wheelchair into the device. Also, they have to be between 5-feet, 2-inches tall and 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weigh less than 220 pounds to fit into the device.

Berkeley Bionics says its current eLegs system stays charged for more than six hours, and allows users to walk in a straight line at speeds in excess of 2 mph, stand from a sitting position, stand for an extended period of time, and sit down from a standing position. Within a year, the company hopes wearers will also be able to make tight and wide turns. Berkeley Bionics CEO Eythor Bender says the company is hoping to make the eLegs system available for around $50,000--about half the cost of current high-end wheelchairs.

eLegs are built in the legacy of Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), a robotic exoskeleton created by Berkeley Bionics and Lockheed Martin to give soldiers superhuman strength to carry loads up to 200 pounds for extended periods.

But Rex and eLegs are just two of the promising robotic contraptions enabling wheelchair users to do the improbable. Argo Medical Technologies' ReWalk robotic suit (which looks a lot like eLegs) is currently undergoing clinical trials in the U.S. The Israeli company says it expects to have the suit through the FDA approval process and on the market in 12 to 18 months.