This lightweight robotic exoskeleton is getting paralyzed people on their feet once again
"I am not the robot, I wear the robot," Steven Sanchez said of the Phoenix robotic exoskeleton that is helping paralyzed people walk again. The Phoenix, developed by SuitX, is a modular robotic device that enables people with limited mobility walk with the fluidity of natural movement.
Sanchez, now 28-years-old, was paralyzed 11 years ago in a BMX accident. He was casually playing around with fellow high schoolers on his bike when an accident left him immobile from the waist down.
For the last four years he's been working with SuitX on the development, design, and technical execution of the lightweight machinery that's helped him regain mobility. Sanchez, a machinist by trade, is one of the first people in the world to walk with the Phoenix skeleton equipped.
"You feel empowered in the suit," he said in an interview with the Daily Dot. "You have all the control and you can tell it to go when you want it to go. If you’re not feeling comfortable in a situation, it’s light enough to move yourself around and get yourself in a better situation.
Founded in 2010, SuitX works on technical solutions for immobility, endeavoring to make assistive devices as human-friendly as possible.
The Phoenix is a computerized system worn around the shoulders that communicates with modules on the outside of the hip and knee. The hip modules propel the leg forward in a walking motion, while the knee modules stiffen and loosen depending on whether the wearer is walking or standing still. It's this technique that makes the Phoenix look and feel less machine-like than other robotic exoskeletons.
Movement is controlled by two buttons on a pair of crutches, which are pressed with each step to move people forward or backward and up or down. To stand up on his own, Steve pressed the forward button multiple times in a row, and the torque helped him rise from a seated position.
The suit connects to a mobile app that tracks the user's motion for a wholistic understanding of patient care. Caregivers and doctors will be able to track how active individuals are in the suit, and can customize exercises for each person and quantify their activity.
Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, cofounder of SuitX and a pioneer of robotic exoskeletons since the late 1980s, said that the company designs their devices to be as minimalistic as possible, putting just as much emphasis on the software backbone controlling the suit as the hardware that moves the person. Eventually, the tech might be small enough to be worn underneath clothing. Weighing a lightweight 27 pounds, the suit can be modified to fit a wearer's customizable braces, like Sanchez's, or people can wear general ones developed by the company.
Once available to consumers, the Phoenix will be the cheapest exoskeleton for people with limited movement, costing just $40,000. While that seems like a hefty price tag for the tech, consider that Sanchez paid $5,000 for the manual wheelchair he used during our interview, and $1,000 for the pillow he sat upon while in it. Similar and clunkier devices like Rewalk cost upwards of $70,000 and weigh 50 pounds or more.
Kazerooni compares the work SuitX does to the Wright Brothers and the development of the first airplane. The first airplane didn't have reclining seats and first class options, but the brothers' breakthrough paved the way for the 500-passenger jet.
"I’m dreaming of something comparable to wheelchair pricing. Regardless of whether that happens in my lifetime, that’s not an issue," Kazerooni said. "Someone has to get started, and things have to get better and better."
For the team at SuitX, creating something that will enhance the independence of individuals with spinal cord injuries and children with disorders like Cerebral Palsy is just as trendy—if not more impressive—than building drones or Teslas or software for Bay Area big shots.
Kazerooni is a mechanical engineering professor at UC Berkeley, and almost all of the people who work at SuitX graduated from, or are pursuing an education, at the university. He says he tries to instill the values of making something meaningful over following the Valley hype machine of whatever cool tech product seems to be popular this year.
"It’s very important for me that this generation of people, who are very young, to know it is cool to work on technologies that help people," he said. "I don’t want them to say oh yeah I’m working on a drone or I’m making a sport car. Every time I [hear] this cocktail party conversation, guys are talking about drones and turbo engines and all that."
Sanchez said the company is like family, and the feeling is palpable. When I visited the group's nondescript office near downtown Berkeley, the atmosphere was extremely casual and carefree. People made jokes with colleagues, snacked on potato chips, and celebrated a birthday while sharing cake. All the while, the employees were actively modifying robotic parts for the next iteration of the exoskeleton and testing out different versions on their own legs.
Sanchez took me through a demonstration of the Phoenix. It took about four minutes to put on his braces and get into the suit, at which point he stood up and walked around unassisted. His gait was fluid, knees swinging with each step, which he says provides a feeling unlike other exoskeletons he's tried.