Patients with spinal cord injuries may soon be back on their feet - standing, walking and even climbing stairs.
After three years of design and research, a team of engineers at Vanderbilt University is ready to unveil something they said can make that miracle happen.
This is the exoskeleton, an external skeleton that attaches to the hips and legs with a power of its own.
The exoskeleton is a wearable robot. Just by moving, a computer picks up that motion and relays it to the motors, and gets you on the move again.
At only 27 pounds, the lightweight design of the exoskeleton offers paraplegics a newfound independence. What sets it apart is that it fits in a wheelchair, so patients can put it on and take it apart by themselves, and then stand on their own.
Brian Shaffer is a former athlete. He's been confined to a wheelchair for almost two years.
It was Christmas night 2010, Shaffer's vehicle hit ice on an overpass and flipped.
"I just knew when I tried to get out of the vehicle," said Shaffer. "All I could do was drag myself out backwards. I knew that I couldn't stand up or move my legs at that point."
The exoskeleton now moves his legs for him. Crutches keep him steady. These 30-minute walks keep Shaffer healthy for his family.
"It's functional stimulation on here where you have electrodes that hook into your muscles and that actually builds strength in your muscles," said Don Truex, a research engineer at Vanderbilt.
Researchers said bone density and circulation also improve with movement.
"Just being able to stand up after four, five, six months of not standing up, that's wonderful," said Shaffer.
Shaffer's kids think it's cool. They call him "Ironman" when he is wearing the exoskeleton. And being a superhero may not be such a far stretch in real life.
"I see myself walking one day," said Shaffer. "As I have these legs on, I'd like to get out of my vehicle and out of my chair and be able to stand up against the fence and watch my son play ball. I would love to do that."
Researchers at Vanderbilt have signed an agreement to commercially produce the exoskeleton and hope to have it available to the public in 2014.
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