Article originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 1, 2016
By Victoria Colliver
SuitX, a Berkeley startup, has developed what promises to be the lightest, lowest-cost exoskeleton yet — a low-profile robotic suit that helps people who use wheelchairs stand up and walk.
For Steve Sanchez, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a BMX accident in 2004, that means being able to stand the full length of his 6-foot frame and look people in the eye rather than gazing up at them from his wheelchair. The suit allows him to walk, albeit slowly, commanding his 1.25 mph stride with hand controls on crutches that communicate wirelessly with software in the skeleton.
“In the coming years, the crutches will disappear and people will be wearing this under their clothes and no one will know you’re wearing an exoskeleton,” said Sanchez, 28, of San Ramon, a machinist who contracts with SuitX to test the company’s designs. “I stood in line at the Vatican, and no one noticed or cared that I was in a walking device.”
SuitX, founded in 2012 by UC Berkeley Professor Homayoon Kazerooni and former graduate students of the university’s Human Engineering and Robotics Laboratory, has created its first product, dubbed the Phoenix. At 27 pounds and $40,000, it is about half the weight and price of some of its competitors.
“We’re committed to bringing these devices to a large number of people,” said Kazerooni, SuitX’s chief executive officer. “The thesis of this work is about creating devices that are minimal in terms of hardware, minimal in terms of volume.”
Instead of creating sophisticated technology, Kazerooni and his team stripped the suit down to the basics with only the lightest components necessary. “The emphasis is on the software and intelligence in design, rather than elaborate hardware,” he said.
While the Phoenix assists people who are paralyzed or have limited mobility, the creators emphasized that it’s not quite ready to replace the wheelchair. It can’t match the speed, its battery lasts only about eight hours between charges and it doesn’t allow the user to climb stairs.
But it does allow its users, whether they’re paralyzed or have neurological conditions like a stroke or cerebral palsy, to experience walking. That by itself is widely seen as a form of therapy that improves muscle tone, keeps blood flowing and reduces the chance of pressure sores and other problems associated with prolonged sitting.
The Phoenix is designed to mimic the way people naturally walk. The developers stripped the number of actuators — the motors that create the movement — down to just two at the hips to allow the knee to flex naturally while walking rather than having the device move the knee. The motors are connected to leg braces, and the suit is powered by a battery worn as a small backpack.
Bradley Perry, SuitX’s software engineering lead, said it took him about three months to develop the software. The unit can be customized depending on the user’s size and type of injury, and a clinician can monitor the patient’s movements via a tablet.
“Our design is something akin to a bicycle. The bicycle isn’t going to do the driving for you,” said Michael McKinley, SuitX’s co-founder. The suit, he said, was designed to make people feel they are in control, rather than being propelled forward by the suit.
Use can vary
While the system is designed to help people stand up and walk, how people move and use it is up to them, he said. “It’s more like giving a musician an instrument,” he said. “You learn the principle of the instrument, and then go beyond what the violin maker envisioned.”
Sanchez, who has zip-lined, bungee-jumped and traveled around the world since becoming paralyzed at 17, has always been convinced that technology would help him walk again.
At the company’s Berkeley lab this week, Sanchez took about four minutes to put the suit on, which he is able to do on his own while seated in his wheelchair. He stood for several minutes to get used to the sensation, and then stepped forward.
“It feels like I’m walking,” he said, while walking in the high-grade aluminum, titanium and lightweight carbon-fiber suit. “It doesn’t feel like the robot is walking.”
Sanchez has tried out about a half-dozen earlier iterations of the Phoenix over the past four years, plus competitors’ exoskeletons.
The major competitors include ReWalk Robotics of Marlborough, Mass., which received Food and Drug Administration approval for its 51-pound device in 2011, and Ekso Bionics, a Richmond company rhat Kazerooni founded and has a suit that costs around $100,000. Another company,Indego, received FDA approval last month for a suit that is similar in weight to the Phoenix, but costs twice as much.
SuitX has applied for FDA approval and plans to produce about 30 advanced prototype Phoenix suits this summer.
The company last month received a $1 million prize in the international Robotics for Good Competition in Dubai for a pediatric version of its exoskeleton, which is designed to help children with neurological conditions like cerebral palsy and spina bifida. SuitX is also working on devices to assist people who are able bodied, but do repetitive lifting and other motions that put them at risk of injury.
SuitX’s CEO said he expects the price of the Phoenix to drop even further, making it accessible to more people.
“We’re committed to bring this forward within the next few years,” Kazerooni said. “We’re not able to fix a spinal-cord injury … but as engineers, with the tools we have, we’re just trying to help create a better life.”
Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @vcolliver