By Karina Ioffee
RICHMOND, Calif. — More than 80 years ago, Model A’s rolled out of the gleaming new Ford assembly plant at the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Today, the brick “daylight factory” with tall ceilings and an open floor plan is where state-of-the-art technology of a different era is manufactured — wearable robots that help humans walk, lift heavy items and run faster.
Welcome to Ekso Bionics, a robotics company whose products include an external wearable body frame that soldiers can put on under their uniforms to help them carry heavy loads, as well as a device people with spinal cord injuries can wear to help them during their rehabilitation.
“It’s not about being a Terminator-like machine,” said Heidi Darling, a spokeswoman for the company, which went public in 2014. “We don’t want to control the human but to augment them and provide just the right amount of power to meet their goals.”
Take the Ekso GT. The exoskeleton, which resembles a brace with crutches and a backpack, was designed for people who have lost some or all use of their legs. It works when sensors in the device respond to weight being put on them, initiating the assisted steps. That ensures the wearer is aligned into a proper walking pattern, which could help the patient rehabilitate faster, the company says.
For people with full paralysis, the suit might help reduce pain, improve bladder and bowel function and reduce health complications by getting patients with full spinal injuries out of their chairs.
On a recent day, 26-year-old Matt Tilford, who became a paraplegic after a car accident eight years ago, walked around strapped inside a bionic suit with the help of his physical therapist. No amount of rehabilitation will restore his ability to walk, but the suit, which he uses occasionally as an ambassador for Ekso Bionics, has helped improve Tilford’s digestion and general well-being.