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A robotic exoskeleton powered this disabled U.S. athlete to a prize in the ‘Robot Olympics’

At age seventeen, most teenagers are worried about what major they’ll choose in college, or why that boy or girl they like won’t message them back, despite clearly having read their message on WhatsApp. Mark Daniel was dealing with the fact that he may never walk again.

That year, 2007, Daniel was partially paralyzed in a car accident, which left him without mobility of his lower limbs. Rather than giving up, he focused all his energy on excelling at physiotherapy.

Three years later, Daniel’s physiotherapists got in touch to say that they had been approached by researchers from a non-profit research organization called the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. IHMC’s researchers were looking for a promising candidate to work with them on an exoskeleton project: one which offered the faint glimmer of hope that it might one day help someone without the use of their legs to walk again.

“We went from walking a straight line to going up stairs, going up ramps, being able to control all of these trajectories in around six-to-nine months.”

“It’s just in my personality to want to try new things,” Mark Daniel, now 26 years old, told Digital Trends. “Being scared of an experience isn’t something I spend time being worried about. If I get a butterfly feeling in my stomach, that excites me and makes me more interested in it. When I was presented with the idea of getting into an exoskeleton and being able to walk, it was [something I knew I wanted to do.]”

Daniel soon met with Peter Neuhaus, senior research scientist at IHMC. Together, they embarked on a long-running project — which recently won Daniel second place in an event at the first-ever Cybathlon event in Zurich, Switzerland, where 70 robot-aided athletes from 25 countries competed against one another.

“[In training for the contest,] we went from walking a straight line to going up stairs, going up ramps, being able to control all of these trajectories in around six-to-nine months,” he said. “At first, just being able to stand up was a feat in itself. Then to develop as fast as we did was amazing.”

Daniel’s event at Cybathlon was a powered exoskeleton race, which asked individuals kitted out in similar exoskeletons to navigate a series of obstacles in the shortest time possible. He was the only U.S. “pilot” to take part.

“It was an honor to be part of it,” Daniel said. “We needed that kind of publicity and exposure in both the robotics and disabled community. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who didn’t even know this was being explored. They’re blown away that this technology exists at all.”

IHMC Powered Exo Cybathlon Full Course Practice Run

Daniel’s exoskeleton is called Mina v2, developed by IHMC with technical help and sponsorship from Star Prototype, a company that specializes in low-volume manufacturing and rapid prototyping, using techniques such as 3D metal printing, CNC machining and plastic injection molding. The Mina2 robotic exoskeleton weighs 75-pounds and can operate under challenging terrain conditions for around 2 hours on a single charge — or longer under more common conditions.

“After the Cybathlon, we went for a walk around Zurich in the exoskeleton,” IHMC’s Peter Neuhaus told Digital Trends. “Our goal was just to spend time outside the lab [in everyday conditions].”

The reason for this, of course, is that — as exciting as the Cybathlon was — it was, at heart, a proof of concept. Long-term, the idea is that technologies such as Mina2 will allow the likes of Mark Daniel to more permanently regain the use of his legs.

The next step in the process will involve making exoskeletons that can think on their own.

It’s still got a way to go, but the technology may already be more usable than you expect.

“Doing jobs around the house while in it — standing at the sink to wash dishes or changing a lightbulb — really isn’t stressful to do,” he continued. “But to get it out of the home and into the real world, so you could wear it down into town to your job, will require better balancing and longevity of battery life. But as far as the ability to get around? That’s certainly not impossible now.”

Neuhaus said the next step in the process will involve making exoskeletons that can think on their own.

“At present, there aren’t a lot of smarts in [our] device,” he said. “It can take commands from the pilot and executing on those commands. But I think we’re going to see big advances in the next five years in the field as a whole. It would be nice if the exoskeleton had the ability to make some decisions about what to do. For that, it needs to know about the world around it. At the moment, there’s no good way of communicating all the sensing and processing that’s taking place in Mark’s head and turning that into the actions the device takes — other than through Mark’s thumb and fingertips.”

That’s changing, however. And very rapidly, too. Should continued advances in fields like robotics, brain interfaces and artificial intelligence carry on at their present rates, hopefully the days technologies such as this prove to be head-turners won’t continue for too much longer.

Because they’ll be too much a part of everyday life for us to notice. Although feats like Mark Daniel’s will always impress us.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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