Skin Deep

When Aching, Breaking Bodies
Are Replaced By Bionic Suits

Evolution’s ultimate job to our bodies, its finish, is of course the skin, this marvelous outer layer that makes up for our biggest organ. Soft but strong enough to hold our guts together, it’s in a word, a marvel. It’s also porous, tears up easily, and can’t withstand the elements.
As for the bones, they do keep it all in place, but are also brittle and fracture often. Now two new bodysuits may be our response to nature’s shortcomings: an exoskeleton that we may someday wear on the Moon, and a bionic armor, for those who can’t walk.
We shouldn’t be complaining, but apart from perfect atmospheric conditions, our skin is good as dead, as in leather thick dead. It can’t be soaked, or frozen, or exposed for any extended amount of time without breaking up and affect our entire organism. And it still takes the body a long time to replace it and cover up again, when it’s slashed.
An adult has over 200 bones inside, most of them located in the hands and feet. But even if they’re hard to split apart, they often do, and depending of the part of the body, you may never walk again or even move it for the rest of your life. Even when it’s not that radical, bones ache and wear and tear right when you begin enjoying life, and you still have to drag them around.
That’s all a result of our still evolving human condition, of course, and who knows, maybe one day this limitations will be laughable. In the meantime, we may be still forever in debt with the visionaries who won’t wait for that skin deep and rock bone age to dawn on us. They’re fully committed to help humans survive in the vacuum, or stand up and walk, no matter what.
So, in homage to Felix Baumgartner, and the suit that helped him jump Sunday from 24 miles above Earth, at 834mph, setting among other records, the Internet‘s live viewership of a single event; and to 89-year-old Chuck Yeager, who on the same day, repeated his historical 1947 flight, the first to break the speed of sound, also wearing a protective suit, here’s a post about the two newest ones.
In time: Yeager, one of pioneers of early space flights, had no idea who the hell Baumgartner was, or that he was landing on, of all places, Roswell, New Mexico, that very same day. As far as anyone can tell, the principal of the ‘Right Stuff’ group immortalized by Tom Wolfe, doesn’t even have an Internet connection at home.

NASA has developed the X1, a 51-pound robotic exoskeleton for human use in a zero gravity environment, specifically to counter the effects of acute muscle atrophy, observed in astronauts who spend long periods in that kind of conditions. The ultimate beneficiaries though, may wind up being those who may never fly to outer space: people with mobility problems and motor disability.
Space Technology Program Director Michael Gazarik said that the exoskeleton is a natural extension of NASA’s ‘Robonaut 2,’ the first cyber creature to be taken to the International Space Station, to help astronauts with their tasks. The quite popular Robonaut is stationary, though, powered by the solar energy source that fuels the ISS. The body suit uses lithium battery packs to work.
The comparison with the comic book character Ironman was not coincidental; the suit was actually inspired by the complex contraption worn by the millionaire Tony Stark cartoon hero. As if a ‘smart,’ robotic suit, that can be worn in outer planets, and also make regular folk walk again, was not enough of a happy confluence of geekness with goodwill science.

If the X1 is a robotic device, the ReWalk is a bionic one, already functional, but on its way to become even more responsive to ‘thought control,’ operating from a brain interface. In a nutshell, these two complementary approaches may very soon produce an exoskeleton that may be, in may aspects, equivalent, if not superior, to the natural body.
Well, not quite, you may say. But for the six million of wheelchair users in the U.S. and Europe, 250,000 of which may benefit of this technologies, their own bodies are far less capable to do what most of us take for granted. We may be on the verge of a new era, where thousands of people may literally get up, climb stairs, and pretty much go about their business for the first time in their lives.
Claire Lomas, who’s been paralyzed since a horse riding accident in 2007, has been using the ReWalk, with which she ran the London Marathon, lighted up a pyre at the Olympic games, and raised over $300 thousand for spinal damage research. Oh, she’s also had a baby too. In the process, she recently got to enjoy one of life’s little pleasures: standing at a London pub and having a pint.
Costs are still high, of course (for the suit, not the pint). But comparing its estimated price of about $72 thousand, with medical bills associated with wheelchair use, it’s a sensible investment, from a health insurance company’s standing point. And as they become popular, this and others like it may became much more accessible.
There’s also a poignant story behind this particular device: it was developed by the founder of its company, Argo. Dr. Amit Goffer, is himself a quadriplegic, and spent the past decade fine tuning the suit, and turning his small Israel-based start-up into an international concern. It’s currently awaiting clearance from the FDA to be marketed in the U.S. too.
Since its founding, in 2001, Argo has been deployed in many countries of Europe and has helped dozens of wheelchair users across the globe, including Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But, alas, despite having shown its potential usefulness to millions of people, the good doctor can’t use his own invention due to constrains of his spinal chord injury disability.
There are a few other projects being developed towards creating the perfect mix of functionality, weight, responsiveness to brain commands, and other fixtures, to suit a wide array of physically limited, but otherwise perfectly able individuals who’re wheelchair bound. As we said, bones become brittle and fracture easily, and the skin breaks up in sores too.
Reuters, reporting on recent breakthroughs in the development of technologies that may help to usher that new exoskeleton generation, points to a Dutch team that’s been working on functional magnetic resonance imaging, and has unveiled in June a device ‘which monitors blood flow in the brain, and allow people to spell out words simply by thinking of each letter.’
A similar experiment has used FMRI to ‘control the movements of a robot thousands of miles away at Beziers Technology Institute, in France.’ As in the history of any scientific and technological breakthroughs, research and development can only help so much. It’s the practice of active humans which ultimately may give the necessary quantum leaps to bring these new inventions to our daily lives.
At this point, any advancement, even the slightest one, will accomplish at least two concrete things: it’ll immediately bode well to accelerate further research and tweaking. Also, no matter how slow it may all seem, now it’s already definitely running way faster than the glacial pace that takes evolution to be noticeable.
Short of that, it’s always humbling to realize that Cheetahs, for example, have always outpaced humans. And for at least a few dozen centuries, they’ll still always beat us. So if we act so spoiled it’s because, most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge how slow we’ve been achieving anything in this life. Do you know how long it took us to start brushing our teeth? oh, never mind that.

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