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Nuts & Bolts

April 25, 2014

A 'wearable robot' helps her walk again

WASHINGTON — Science is about facts, numbers, laws and formulas. To be really good at it, you need to spend a lot of time in school. But science is also about something more: dreaming big and helping people.

 "We're living in a technological day and age where we can improve quality of life," said Amanda Boxtel, talking by phone from her Colorado home. "I think anything goes, anything is possible."

Boxtel, 46, should know. When she was 24, a ski accident left her unable to use her legs. A doctor told her she would never walk again. Now, with new technology called a bionic exoskeleton, she is able to stand on her own two feet.Af

"To stand up and walk with a natural gait, it was everything I had imagined," she said.

Boxtel will speak Sunday at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, where she will demonstrate her exoskeleton, which she said is like a "wearable robot."

For about an hour a day and with help from a physical therapist, Boxtel puts on the metal casing over her clothes. It allows her to stand upright. The exoskeleton works as the parts of her body that no longer function: The metal frame is like her skeleton; four motors serve as her muscles; six joints take the place of her ankles, knees and hips; and sensors on the robot take the place of her nerves. To walk, Boxtel shifts her weight from one side to the other, which signals to the sensors that she wants to take a step.

In science, ideas and inventions are often built on from one generation to the next. In 1890, a Russian scientist named Nicholas Yagn designed a harness for Russian soldiers to wear that would help them run faster. In the 1960s, the U.S. military started developing a suit that would help soldiers carry 200 pounds of equipment. In 2005, a company called Ekso Bionics began making the exoskeleton that Boxtel wears. Other companies have started making them, too.

 In 2010, Boxtel became the first paralyzed woman to walk using the Ekso exoskeleton. The exoskeleton has yet to be perfected: It's not easy for Boxtel to walk in. It takes real balance. "Getting a robot to walk is a mammoth task, but getting a paralyzed person inside a robot to walk presented the greatest challenge," she said.

But Boxtel is optimistic. She is confident that in time she will wear the exoskeleton under her clothes and be able to reach items on the top shelf in her kitchen with little effort.

"It is a new mobility option for people who are in wheelchairs," she said, "and it is going to become more and more common to see them every day."

Today there are about 30 Ekso exoskeletons in the United States.

The first time Boxtel tried to walk in the exoskeleton, she fell. She fell the second and third time, too.

"I had been paralyzed for 18 years at that point, and I hadn't taken any natural steps," she said.

But she kept getting up. And on the fourth try, she walked.

"What you think and believe, you have the power to . . . bring to life," she said.

Boxtel has set up programs around the world designed to help people with disabilities do things such as skiing and whitewater rafting.

"I have always been pushing the limits to see where my body could go and the thousands of things I could do instead of the 100 things that I couldn't," she said.

Boxtel was a fourth-grade teacher before her accident. Today, she travels around the world speaking to mostly adult audiences about her experiences. But she is still drawn to kids.

Kids "have the ability to believe in the impossible," she said. "I am a big dreamer, and I want these kids to dream, too. If you can dream it, you can invent it, and if you can invent it, you can put it to really good use to turn a life around."

 

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