11 July 2024

A self-balancing exoskeleton that enables users to move in multiple directions hands-free has been cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for stroke rehabilitation.

Since 2020, French developers Wandercraft has deployed 22 copies of their gait-training ‘Atalante’ exoskeleton in clinical settings. With FDA backing, they hope to deliver the first Atalante exoskeletons in the United States during the first quarter of 2023.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. It is a leading cause of serious long-term disability.

In 2021, Reuters was given a first-hand demonstration of the possibilities wearable exoskeletons can have for people with disabilities.

Oscar Constanza, then 16, gave a voice command to the exoskeleton he was wearing. Slowly but surely, the large frame strapped to his body lifted him up and he started walking.

Fastened to his shoulders, chest, waist, knees, and feet, the exoskeleton allowed Oscar – who has a genetic neurological condition that means his nerves do not send enough signals to his legs – to walk across the room and turn around.

“Before, I needed someone to help me walk … this makes me feel independent,” said Oscar, as his father Jean-Louis Constanza, one of the co-founders of Wandercraft, looked on.

“One day Oscar said to me, ‘Dad, you’re a robotics engineer, why don’t you make a robot that would allow us to walk?'” his father recalled, speaking at the company headquarters in Paris.

“Ten years from now, there will be no, or far fewer, wheelchairs,” he said.

Other companies across the world are also manufacturing exoskeletons, competing to make them as light and usable as possible. Some are focused on helping disabled people walk, others on a series of applications, including making standing less tiring for factory workers.

Since 2020, Wandercraft’s exoskeleton has already deployed 22 copies of it in clinical settings, and 5 in other research settings. It has been sold to hospitals in France, Luxembourg, and the United States, for about 150,000 euros ($176,000) apiece, Constanza said.

It cannot yet be bought by private individuals for everyday use – that is the next stage the company is working on. A personal exoskeleton would need to be much lighter, Wandercraft engineers said.

Just outside Paris, Kevin Piette, then 33, who lost the ability to walk in a bike accident 10 years ago, tried one on, walking around his flat, remote controller in hand.

“In the end, it’s quite similar: instead of having the information going from the brain to the legs, it goes from the remote controller to the legs,” he said, before making his dinner and walking with it from the kitchen to the living room.

By Yiming Woo and Matt Stock Reuters