13134124 KLOE NELSON-COLE
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Paralyzed below the waist from a car accident four years earlier, Austin Whitney did the unthinkable in 2011. He stood up from his wheelchair and walked 10 feet across the stage to get his diploma during a graduation ceremony at the University of California, Berkeley.
Whitney had strapped on an exoskeleton suit -- essentially, a battery-powered wearable robot with joints at the hips and knees to help power his movements.
As of this past Monday, anyone could order an updated version of that experimental machine, for delivery next month.
Built by SuitX (aka US Bionics Lab) in Berkeley, the 27-pound Phoenix can help paraplegics walk for up to 4 hours of continuous movement, at up to 1.1 miles per hour, the company says. At $40,000, it's less expensive than some competing products, like the ReWalk, which costs about $70,000.
Still, few are calling it cheap. Its cost and limited battery life mean hospitals and rehab clinics will be the most likely customers, said Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of SuitX and director of the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at UC Berkeley.
"For anyone who got paralyzed through an accident or through birth, it's a big deal." Jacob Rosen, UCLA robotics professor Exoskeletons aren't new. The US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Arm, or DARPA, has been funding their development since the early 2000s. The goal: build lightweight, motorised armour that will enhance soldiers' strength and endurance.
Of course, military applications aren't going away.
Consider HULC, or the human universal load carrier. Currently being developed by Lockheed Martin, the hydraulic-powered suit of armor aims to help soldiers carry 200-pound loads over long distances and difficult terrain. You can watch a soldier walking and jumping with one here.
There's also TALOS. That stands for tactical assault light operator suit, but the gadget could just as easily be called RoboCop. Made of a strong yet flexible material called liquid armor, TALOS is designed by Army researchers to offer soldiers lightweight bulletproof protection and "superhuman strength." It's expected to be available by 2018.