Kevin Piette lost the use of his legs 10 years ago in a car accident, and while he mostly uses a wheelchair to get around, on some days he dons an exoskeleton that allows him to stand independently, walk and do as many simple tasks as possible.
Being stuck on the sofa all day was out of the question for the 33-year-old. Piette dabbled in motorsport for several years, which eventually led to his introduction to Wandercraft, a French exoskeleton company that offers wearers the ability to walk with the help of a robot.
The company was looking for an exo-skeleton pilot – and hired Piette as a tester.
“The first time you get up is quite impressive because you can do it very easily, very quietly, comfortably. And then you have this upright posture that you had actually forgotten about,” he told Euronews Next.
He said cooking while getting up and taking things out of the cupboard were the things he missed and could now do with the robot.
“Being able to cook and reach things up high, things that are part of a really mundane day in life, was rewarding. It’s also really nice to be able to be on the same level as people instead of always looking at them. from below,” he said.
Being able to stand also brings health benefits as he says it has improved his blood circulation which has helped his digestion and has also allowed him to reduce the amount of medication he takes.
The company released its latest self-balancing model, the Atalante X model, this month.
It is currently used in hospitals to aid in rehabilitation and can only be used indoors.
It works by using 12 motors: six at the hips, two at the knees and four at the ankles, which makes movement more natural.
The user controls the exoskeleton with a remote control and a sensor on the back, which is controlled by upper body movements.
It only takes a few minutes to put on and Piette says he can do it on his own.
The next step is to develop a fully self-contained model that people could wear outdoors.
Wandercraft raised $45 million (€41 million) last December to build the world’s first self-balancing personal exoskeleton, which could be used both outdoors and at home.
The company was started in 2012 by three engineers who wanted to improve the lives of people in wheelchairs.
“The wheelchair is not a failure, on the contrary, it is a tool for freedom,” said Wandercraft co-founder Jean-Louis Constanza, whose own son uses a wheelchair.
“The company’s goal is to enable people who can’t or no longer walk to walk again.”
“Today, there is no walking robot or walking exoskeleton that walks autonomously and like a human. So not only did we do a lot of technological work, but also science, and we had to find investors who have followed us for a long time and for quite large amounts,” he said.
“We succeeded because we have a project that really changes society”.
The main challenge for a fully autonomous model that could be used outdoors is to make the technology cheaper, less bulky and to ensure that it is safe and stable.
“We need to develop our algorithms in terms of stability and reliability,” said Jean-Louis Kana, engineer at Wandercraft.
“We will end up with the same problems as self-driving cars. Generally, if the patient has an accident, falls or is jostled, who is responsible? And so there are both technological and regulatory issues.”
But for Piette and the millions of people who use wheelchairs, if the technology is developed and approved, the possibilities are limitless.
“The future for us is being able to go home, and after that there’s the next phase: it’s outside, going out, walking outside, taking a walk, driving a car, going to a bar, shopping, going to a museum,” Piette said.
“The prospects are limitless.”
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