For many people suffering from some degree of paralysis, the only
option for mobility is a wheelchair. Some of those patients may have had to
bear that burden since birth.
Patients in New Zealand, however, now have another option — walking
— thanks to Auckland-based Rex Bionics Ltd.
The original idea for this robotic exoskeleton developed from a high
school friendship and some common circumstances. Richard Little, founder and
chief technology officer of Rex Bionics, and his friend Robert Irving both have
mothers who use wheelchairs. When Irving was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,
which carries with it the possibility of severe disability, the two decided to
work on another option.
“When Robert and I got talking further, we thought we could use our
engineering skills to come up with a viable walking alternative,” Little
The resulting technology was Rex, a robotic exoskeleton that provides
the ability to walk for people previously confined to wheelchairs. The device
is worn outside the body, and supports the person he or she moves, including
standing, walking and climbing stairs or slopes, he told O&P Business
News. Rex, which has more than 4,700 individual parts and is controlled
by a joystick hand controller, is strong enough to move a person’s body,
but is built with lightweight materials that aid movement without weighing down
|Rex, the robotic exoskeleton
created by Richard Little, is strong enough to support a person’s body,
but its lightweight frame does not weigh down the patient.
|Image: Colleen Tunnicliff/Rex
Designed and built completely from scratch by a team of mechatronics and
software engineers and industrial designers, the exoskeleton and its components
currently are available only in New Zealand. Eight spinal cord injury patients
and one with muscular dystrophy already have used Rex and have offered positive
feedback about the experience, Little said.
“We are humbled and amazed by the amount of positive feedback that
we have so far received for Rex,” he said.
These results have encouraged the company to move forward in bringing
the technology to other parts of the world. The device recently fulfilled the
requirements for European CE Mark to be eligible for sale in Europe, and the
company is working on securing FDA approval to bring the device to the United
States, according to the company’s website.
“We’re now just trying to be as realistic as possible for
potential customers about a workable release schedule for places outside New
Zealand, so that we can bring Rex to as many people as possible,” Little
He explained that he can not predict the ultimate reach of the device.
“When it comes down to it, Rex is a tool, which means people will
find different uses for it,” he said.
Patients who have used Rex have commented that, not only does it allow
them to stand and walk, but to complete other simple tasks that many people
take for granted, such as being able to talk to people who are standing —
face-to-face — without having to look up at them.
“That’s not something we specifically set out to achieve, but
… the implications are sometimes as unique as the user,” he said.
Little urged people to see the device as a means to an end.
“Rex is not a replacement for a wheelchair,” he said. “It
is an exciting alternative that can enable people who use wheelchairs to stand
and walk, climb stairs and slopes and otherwise do things they have not
previously been able to do.” — by Stephanie Z. Pavlou
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|Mark D. Geil|
Substantial research has been conducted to develop robotic exoskeletons
for therapeutic purposes, as part of rehabilitation for individuals with
neurological impairment. While locomotion therapy has its purpose, the Rex
device addresses a quite different need. By providing individuals with the
ability to interact with other people and with the built environment from an
upright posture, this exoskeleton has the potential to improve present
participation and quality of life. To be no longer “confined” to a
wheelchair is a substantial benefit apart from any long-term rehabilitation
My hope is that designers of these two different exoskeleton domains
— robots for therapy and robots for mobility — will learn from each
other to advance each worthy effort.
— Mark D. Geil, PhD
Associate professor and
director, Biomechanics Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology and Health,
Georgia State University Practitioner Advisory Council member, O&P