The next step in bionics

Step by step, bionic engineers are transforming lives in ways that barely could have been imagined until recently. Our Cover Story is reported now by Barry Petersen:

A wheelchair used to be all science could offer a person stricken by paralysis. But times have changed.

It happened to Amanda Boxtel 19 years ago ... a freak skiing accident on the Aspen slopes that paralyzed her from the waist down. In time she adjusted, even to the point of skiing again ... and visiting the mountain trails near her Aspen home that she once hiked.

But life ahead is no longer about being in a wheelchair. Her determination has a new focus.

"Are you planning on dancing?" Petersen asked.

"Why not?" she replied. "It's one of my dreams, to be able to slow dance again, heart to heart. Why not? This technology is at the beginning phases of its development."

That dream starts with strapping on a device called eLegs ... an exo-skeleton with 45 pounds of batteries, a computer, sensors in the braces and in the crutches.

Standing is just the first step. Boxtel is discovering what it's like to walk again.

"Well, I just feel like it's cool to be part human and part robot. I mean, I'm the coolest girl in the world!" she laughed. "I'm the bionic woman, come on!"

"Does it feel heavy? Does it feel light? Do you feel like you're wobbly? Or what's the physical sensation?" asked Petersen.

"The physical sensation is that I don't feel weight on me. I'm on my own two feet. I don't even feel the weight of the backpack, because it's dispersed down into the ground and into the feet. I just feel like I've got this nice encasing that's going to help me along my way, and we walk together."

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eLegs is the creation of Berkeley Bionics.

"This particular exo-skeleton includes a number of sensors that participate in the decision to instantiate a stride, to take a step," said John Fogelin, vice president of engineering.

"Part of that is in the crutches that we utilize. Those crutches have sensors within them to determine their location and their angle and force that's being placed on them. We also have sensors within the feet of eLegs. There's also sensors in each of the joints."

Bionics has been around for quite a while in the movies, like the "power loader" from "Aliens" back in 1986.

But much of the technology in Amanda's eLegs is based on an exo-skeleton under development for the military. It allows a soldier to carry up to 200 pounds, with the mechanical skeleton doing most of the heavy lifting.

"Where the ability of man stops currently, the ability of machines can pick up," said Dr. Akshat Shah, who helped develop the eLegs. His rehabilitation facility may be among the first to get working models when they become available early next year.

"While we keep looking for a cure, while we keep looking at stem cells and seeing where that process is going to lead by, we don't have to now wait 15 years while people sit idly by in their chairs," said Dr. Shah. "We can say in the meantime, 'We'll get you up, we'll get you walking. Your bones will be strong, your muscles will be healed. And when that day comes when we have a cure, you're ready."

The new world of high-tech prosthetics includes the Tibion Bionic limb, that helps stroke victims re-learn how to use their legs. It teaches a damaged brain that the leg it thinks is paralyzed can still move.

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