January 13, 2014 AT 10:00 am

Future steps: exoskeleton lets paralyzed snowmobiler walk again

Future steps exoskeleton lets paralyzed snowmobiler walk again The Verge

Esko Bionics aims to get 1 million paralyzed people walking again by 2022. Via The Verge.

Robotic exoskeletons are a staple of sci-fi, pointing to a future where technology can overcome serious injury and bestow superhuman powers on people. But that future is here today for Paul Thacker, who uses an exoskeleton about once a month to stand up and walk around — no small feat, considering he’s paralyzed from the chest down.

The 39-year-old Alaska native and snowmobile enthusiast lost the use of his lower body in a training accident in 2010 and was told he’d be confined to a wheelchair, potentially for the rest of his life. But while in physical therapy at a Colorado hospital in 2011, he stumbled across the Esko, a full-body, powered exoskeleton that is the signature product of Ekso Bionics, a Bay Area-robotics company.

“It’s basically a wearable robot,” Thacker says after taking a walk in the Ekso this week at CES 2014 to promote the system. Ekso just unveiled its fourth and latest variant — the more adaptable Ekso GT, last month. “It’s just an incredible piece of technology.” Thacker controls the suit’s mobility through buttons on his crutches, and then sensors and battery-powered joints do the rest. The suit takes about an hour to charge and offers three hours of battery life for walking around and standing upright. And while Thacker can’t exactly run in it and uses crutches to maintain his balance, the suit allows his normally motionless legs to propel him anywhere he wants. For Thacker, it’s as much a form of mental therapy as it is physical.

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