Arthur Renowitzky can’t help but command attention as he walks down the street on a sunny autumn morning.
A driver lowers her window to flash a smile and a thumbs-up. “You got this,” she says. A neighbor waves from his front yard. “Go get ’em A.R.”
Renowitzky has been paralyzed since 2007 after being shot in the chest for $20 and a fake gold chain. But he can stand and walk, using crutches for balance, when wearing an exoskeleton suit with motorized hips and knees powering his movements.
Wearable robots aren’t new. DARPA has been funding their development since the early 2000s with the aim of building motorized armor to enhance soldiers’ strength and endurance. Panasonic, Ekso Bionics and others offer upper-body suits that help construction and factory workers lift heavy loads. But their most powerful promise may be in helping people regain control of their bodies.
Therapeutic exoskeletons are found mainly in hospitals and rehab centers, where they help increase strength, fight muscle atrophy and encourage blood circulation. The current generation, from companies like ReWalk, Ekso Bionics, Rex Bionics and SuitX, can be bulky, with a gait best described as robotic. Users can walk with them only on solid, level surfaces and need crutches for balance and support. Still, they’re life-changing for paraplegics like Renowitzky.
“It brought tears to my eyes to be eye level with the world again and know that technology is advancing so rapidly,” says Renowitzky, 29, describing the first time he stepped into the 50-pound (23 kilogram) ReWalk.
Get up, stand up
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Mark Daniel walks along the shore of the Limmat River that runs through Zurich’s Old Town.
The day before, Daniel, 27, had competed against six others in a powered exoskeleton race, where robot-assisted athletes performed six everyday tasks, like climbing stairs and sitting down. He placed second.
Daniel has been testing motorized legs at Florida’s not-for-profit Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) since 2010, but this was the first time he got to sightsee in them.
“To be walking down the sidewalk outside was a real heartfelt moment for me,” he says. “I just stood there at the river for I don’t know how long and absorbed it.”
So far, only a handful of companies around the world have regulatory approval to sell exoskelestons for home use. Renowitzky is one of the lucky few to have an exosuit to call his own.