Austin Whitney graduated from UC Berkeley just last month, and he already has a full-time job. Whitney works as a human lab rat.
The 22-year-old paraplegic, who captured headlines recently when he walked across the stage at his commencement wearing bionic legs, now spends long days with the engineers who developed the customized robotic suit. He passionately believes in the device and its potential to alter the lives of those with spinal cord injuries, and he wants to do whatever he can to help perfect the prototype--for himself and others like him.
"We want to make the Model T version of an exoskeleton," Whitney told CNET. "There are health benefits to mobility. It's good for the circulatory and muscular systems, and there's a social and mental benefit. Four years ago, I thought I was going to die on a hospital bed."
That was 2007, when Whitney was 18 years old and got into a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
"The spinal cord injury meant I would likely never walk again," he said. But he did, taking his first public steps in four years at a graduation ceremony at Edwards Track Stadium on May 7 (see the video below).
During the nine months prior, however, he had experimented with walking in a custom-fit robotic device developed on campus in the lab of mechanical engineering professor Professor Homayoon Kazerooni, who is also founder of Berkeley Bionics. That company makes the eLegs robotic exoskeleton, which is currently undergoing trials and is expected to become available to rehabilitation centers by the end of the year, with a personal version for sale for an as-yet-undisclosed price in 2013.
A friend who plays wheelchair basketball with Whitney told him about Kazerooni, one of a number of innovators around the world devoted to developing robotic exoskeletons for wheelchair users. After speaking with him on the phone, Whitney decided to visit the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. "It is like something out of a movie set--exoskeletons hanging from the walls everywhere," he said.
It's inside that lab where Whitney does most of his walking these days, though he does on occasion roam the campus in his bionic suit. He has degrees in history and political science, and plans to attend law school in the fall of 2012. But for now, he spends about six hours a day, from noon to 6 p.m., working (for pay) in the lab. … Read more