Injured military personnel who have legs amputated are to be given the most up-to-date prosthetic limbs. The new technology provides better stability and greater mobility, as well as improvements in the ability to step over obstacles, negotiate stairs and walk backwards safely. The limbs will be fitted where clinically appropriate at the Headley Court military rehabilitation centre in Surrey.
Rex robotic legs were developed by old school-friends from Fort William, Richard Little and Robert Irving. The pair now live in New Zealand and started work on the project eight years ago after Robert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Rex Bionics is among a handful of firms who have created exoskeletons. After diagnose Robert faced a future, like his mother and Richard’s mother, using a wheelchair.
A total of 29 on-board computers and 100 sensors make the bionic legs extremely stable.
The user controls the direction and size of step with a simple joystick. They can go up steps and ramps but are most suitable for man-made smooth floor surfaces.
Elena Bertoldo, who was diagnosed with a spinal problem at birth, has travelled from Italy to the two Scottish engineers’ home town of Fort William to try them out. “It really feels great,” she said. “It’s hard to explain – you have to try it. It’s like having somebody support you when you need support. I really love it!”
Other versions have their origins in futuristic machines being developed by the military to give soldiers superhuman strength. For wheelchair users, exoskeletons offer intriguing possibilities.
“We have engineers who use wheelchairs themselves and they’ll jump in Rex and wear it for eight hours a day,” said Richard.
Although Rex has now been approved for sale in Europe the biggest obstacle remains the price. Developers predict exoskeletons will eventually cost the same as advanced electric wheelchairs and they offer a fascinating insight into the walking aids which might one day be possible.
“This was just something that we thought we would build,” said Richard.
“When we started on the journey, eight years ago, the technology wasn’t really available.”We’ve had to make all the 8,000 parts ourselves. It is still relatively expensive but it is something that will come down in price in time, like all technology.”
Even those without tens of thousands of pounds of cash to spare may benefit from the technology. Rex Bionics are currently in discussions with spinal injury units in the UK about using bionic legs to help people in their rehabilitation.”