When Dale Messenger was left paralyzed following an incident while he was serving in the British Army, he thought he would never walk again. A gunshot wound caused a major spinal cord injury and left him wheel chair-bound — until nearly 3 years later.
But, Messenger told CNBC: “I was adamant I would walk again.”
And now he is, with the help of a wearable bionic suit known as Ekso.
Through a number of different sensors and motors, the device, made by U.S.-based Ekso Bionics, helps people walk via its mechanical legs. If users move their leg slightly forward, the suit will give mechanical assistance to help the person take a step by sensing the movement.
“It’s essentially a wearable robot,” Nathan Harding, co-founder and CEO of Ekso Bionics, told CNBC.
The bionic suit, which was launched in 2012, is just one example of the increasing use of robotics in the medical world.
ReWalk is another company that has bought a bionic exoskeleton to the market, while a number of universities and medical firms have developed bionic prosthetic limbs.
Earlier this year, three men had ground-breaking bionic hand transplants which they could control with nerves and muscles.
After being shot, Messenger was in a military rehab center in the U.K., but the treatment became ineffective.
“After 12 months of nothing happening in rehab, I was brought back down to earth,” the veteran said.
Messenger was eventually discharged in 2011 and the following year started using the Ekso suit.
“I noticed I had a straight back. I was paralyzed and weak throughout my lower body but with Ekso I eventually got function back in my legs,” he added.
Messenger also said the suit helped him to come off the medication he was taking.
Hefty price tag
But the suits are not cheap — CEO Harding said that each one costs around $100,000 on average. Usually the suits are bought by rehab centers and reused by several patients. Messenger has his own one which he was granted as part of the damages settlement following the shooting.
So far, Ekso Bionics has sold 110 suits, and Harding admits the company is in its early stages. But he is hoping that this trend of the robots being part of compensation deals will continue, and is convinced the uptake from rehab centers will increase.
“The market is growing rapidly. We are building the clinical evidence needed to become the standard of care in the medical arena,” Harding said.
As for Messenger, the suit has helped him get some strength back in his legs and he has not given up hope of walking again without the support.
“I’d like to walk again,” he said. “But it’s small goals for now.”
Image credit: CC by Ekso Bionics.