Robotic legs to help paraplegics walk again

TWO inventors in New Zealand have produced what they claim are the world’s first robotic legs to help paraplegics walk again.

The bionic legs were road-tested publicly for the first time this week by 23-year-old Hayden Allen who was told five years ago he would never walk again after being paralysed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident.

Allen said the experience of being able to stand up and walk when strapped into his robotic legs was fantastic and he felt like a normal human being again.

“It will be a big benefit from a social aspect, being able to talk to someone at the same eye level,” he told reporters.

“I’ll never forget what it was like to see my feet walking under me the first time I used Rex,” Allen said. “People say to me ‘look up when you’re walking’ but I just can’t stop staring down at my feet moving.”

Inventors Richard Little and Robert Irving, two expatriate Scottish engineers who emigrated in the early 1990s, came up with the idea seven years ago and have spent $10 million (€7.7m) developing it.

Called Rex (robotic exo-skeleton) the 38 kilogram (84lb) joystick-operated legs were inspired by the movie Aliens in which the character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) climbs into a robotic exoskeleton to fight an alien.

Rex is “a realistic standing and walking alternative to wheelchairs,” the inventors said on their website Rexbionics.com.

“It enables the user to climb up and down stairs, sit, stand, and step backwards, sideways and forwards – providing the opportunity for people in wheelchairs who want to walk, to do just that.”

However, Rex comes with a hefty price tag of $150,000 (€100,000) and at present is only available in New Zealand, although the inventors said it would be sold worldwide from next year.

Rex Bionics, which now employs 25 mechatronic and sofware engineers, believes demand will outstrip supply for the next few years and they have already had a huge number of enquiries.

Little said the catalyst to develop Rex came when Irving developed multiple sclerosis. “In addition, both of our mothers are in wheelchairs, so we are aware of some of the obstacles and access issues faced by many wheelchair users.”


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