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Monday May 16, 2011 12:11 pm

Exoskeleton allows paralyzed Berkeley student to walk at graduation

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Science

UC Berkeley's Austin Whitney has been paralyzed since July 2007 as the result of a car accident that hospitalized the 22-year-old for a total of 41 days. And now, thanks to the research project of a team of Berkeley engineers, the history and political science double-major was able to stand up out of his wheelchair and physically walk across the stage to accept his diploma at the university's May 14 graduation ceremony.

"Ask anybody in a wheelchair; ask what it would mean to once again stand and shake someone's hand while facing them at eye level," said Whitney in an interview with Berkeley's NewsCenter. "It will be surreal, like a dream."

The exoskeleton project, run by Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering Homayoon Kazerooni, focuses on user comfort and affordability as its two chief design points. Instead of, "over-engineering" the machine, as Kazerooni and his team of researchers note, they designed the exoskeleton to seamlessly work with as few components as possible. That means fewer motors to impact movement, which necessitates a smaller amount of sensors to track movement, which leads to a simpler device that costs less than the current market price of a typical exoskeleton: $100,000 on up.

"It is much harder in engineering to keep things simple," said Wayne Tung, a Ph.D. student in Kazerooni's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. "It's easy to just add more parts to do what you need, but that raises the cost of production, and it means more things can go wrong."

To operate the exoskeleton—named after him, we note—Whitney uses an interface to send a command to the computer he wears as part of a small backpack. The backpack also contains a rechargeable battery that powers the exoskeleton itself for up to four to eight hours. Sensors assess the position of the exoskeleton frame attached to Whitney's legs as the motor and drivetrain work to complete a movement along a programmed trajectory.

Kazerooni estimates that his team's exoskeleton could come to market around a $20,000 price point—analogous to the cost of a powered wheelchair. More important than the price, however, are the inspirational and transformative effects that the Austin exoskeleton could have on the future of assisted mobility, as well as Whitney himself.

"To have this knowledge of the larger picture, of the possibility that this could affect the lives of countless people around the globe, giving them the gift that I've been given – the gift of hope – it truly puts even our most frustrating days in perspective for me," Whitney said.

This article, written by David Murphy, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc.

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