Seven steps. A short, straight walk across a stage backed by blue and gold balloons, lit by camera flashes, and ringing with the cheers of 15,000 people in the track stadium at the University of California at Berkeley. For most of the class of 2011, traipsing across the carpeted commencement platform is a triumphal but essentially symbolic exercise. You don’t even get your diploma, just a rolled-up note saying that one will be mailed. But for Austin Whitney, who comes last this year, the walk itself will be a major achievement.
Whitney is a paraplegic. For the past four years, he has been bound to a wheelchair, unable to walk. Then he got a call from Homayoon Kazerooni, the director of Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. Kazerooni creates robotic exoskeletons, motorpowered devices worn by users to add mechanical might to the movements of muscle and bone. The U.S. military funds most exoskeleton research, with the goal of one day creating a super-soldier, a bionic man who can punch through brick walls or carry 200-pound loads all day long. Kazerooni has built exoskeletons that are now being tested by the Army, but when he contacted Whitney in August 2010, he had other users in mind. He was looking for a research subject to help his students develop an exoskeleton that didn’t give its wearer a superpower but rather a much more basic one: the ability to walk.
On the stage, Whitney’s mortarboard tassel drops in front of his eyes and he flips it aside with a shake of his head. Lurking a few feet behind him in dark glasses and black sport coats are Michael McKinley, Jason Reid and Wayne Tung, graduate students in Kazerooni’s lab. Waiting offstage is another graduate student, Minerva Pillai, and the lab manager, Arun Joshua Cherian. Whitney is about to demonstrate their invention in public for the first time, and the exoskeleton has been bedeviled with technical glitches that persisted until moments before he wheeled himself onstage.
Until now, the exoskeletons developed in Kazerooni’s lab have been elaborately engineered test pieces. “All we’ve been doing is making really expensive machines,” Kazerooni says. “We’re making Porsches.” For the current project, Kazerooni challenged the students to invent the Honda of exoskeletons, a bare-bones device that would cost $15,000 or less, not $100,000 or more. Only at that price, he says, will disabled people (and their insurance companies) be able to afford them. Since the project began in January 2009, it has become a steadily consuming obsession for Kazerooni’s students, who powered themselves through 17-hour days with caffeine, candy bars and pirated MP3s. In the month before graduation, most of the students took up unofficial residence in the lab. “This in many ways is like a moon launch,” McKinley says. “When the countdown reaches zero, we hit that stage.”
Whitney grips the handles of a walker placed in front of him. Arms quivering, he pushes himself up from the chair. Cheers swell around him as his right leg, powered by the clacking machinery of the exoskeleton, flexes at the knee and begins to swing forward.on Tuesday at Midnight, four days before graduation, it seems uncertain that the first step will even happen, though the students refuse to voice any doubt. Kazerooni is in China for a conference, the students are running the shop, and the exoskeleton is having problems. The “Kaz Lab,” a windowless, basement-level room in Berkeley’s engineering building, is strewn with wires, circuit boards, Thai food containers and Twix wrappers. McKinley hunches over a computer-controlled machining tool, which cuts into a copper plate with a nails-against-the-chalkboard scream. Pillai works at a sewing machine to modify the exoskeleton’s shoulder harness. Exoskeleton prototypes with gears for hips and thin metal rods for legs hang from ceiling straps around the room’s perimeter.Crammed against one wall, a treadmill sits covered by a bed sheet. Two sneakered feet jut out from underneath it. They belong to Whitney, who, somehow, amid the pandemonium, is able to nap. Though he isn’t an engineer (double major in history and political science), Whitney’s input is critical to the Kaz Lab team. He has participated in hundreds of tests and provided design suggestions, user feedback and motivation. The students might say they’re working to advance the cause of the disabled, but what they’re really thinking about is helping their friend to walk. The schedule has been so hectic lately that Whitney returns home for only a few hours a night and has taken to napping between exoskeleton tests. A paper-plate sign taped to his treadmill shanty reads “Will pilot exos for food.”
Reid stands up from a computer where he had been tweaking some of the software that controls the exoskeleton. He comes over and taps Whitney on the shoulder. “We’re about ready for you, Austin,” he says. Whitney sits up and rubs his eyes. He hoists himself into a wheelchair that already holds the exoskeleton in a seated position. He cracks open a 16-ounce Monster Energy drink as the team members tighten the bindings that hold him in the machine. The test is about to begin when Whitney calls out, “Oh wait, music. Come on guys, step up!” A student taps at a keyboard, and a beat starts pumping out of desktop speakers. “Some labs run on water, others on honey,” Whitney says. “We run on techno.”
Whitney pushes himself laboriously to his feet, and the exoskeleton experiment is under way. With a safety cord running to a ceiling track, he takes a lurching, clanking step forward, like the Tin Man breaking free from his prison of rust.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.