A robotic exoskeleton that allows some people with spinal cord injuries to walk upright has been approved for use by Health Canada and the U.S. Federal Drug Administration.

The ReWalk was designed by a paraplegic inventor, Dr. Amit Goffer, who was seeking a better solution to life in a wheelchair, says Larry Jasinski, CEO of ReWalk Robotics.

Dr. Goffer’s invention was an exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with a spinal cord injury to stand upright and walk, Jasinski explained in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

“Given that he was paralyzed himself, I think his understanding of what he was creating was greater than any of us would have developed independently,” he said.

Improvements in motion sensing technology and the advent of improved computers and batteries helped create a more natural form of motion that is not so difficult to learn for paraplegic users, Jasinski said.

ReWalker Radi – Rehacare 2012, Düsseldorf, Germany

A man in Germany demonstrates walking with a ReWalk robotic exoskeleton. (Argo Technologies)

“What Dr. Goffer did, he took the concept of using a motion sensor where the person can use their own body to tell this thing how to walk,” he said.

“It’s the combination of the sensor which communicates to the very elaborate software program that mimics human walking., When you take a step it’s heel to toe, just like you and I walk down the hallway and this natural motion is important because it is efficient ...and it is also better for your body to use your joints in natural motion.”

The ReWalk is already approved for use in Asia and Europe, received Health Canada approval for home use at the beginning of the year and FDA approval in May.

Hopes insurers will pay

It sells for about $69,500 US, a cost ReWalk Robotics hopes both public and private sector insurers will eventually agree to shoulder.

“We believe the reduction in medications, as users and patients get healthier and reduced complications for someone who might be confined to a wheelchair will allow this system to pay for itself,” Jasinski said.

ReWalk, based in Massachusetts and a unit of Argo Technologies, has competitors in creating robotics for paraplegics, among them Ekso Bionics.

The next step for the company is to establish training centres in Canada and the U.S. where potential users can try the device and train on it if they believe it is a good fit for them.

There are some limitations – people aren’t able to walk on snow, ice or soft sand – but they can take on stairs and uneven ground.

“Right now the primary limitations are people learning to use it properly and we have enough users now in the U.S. and starting in Canada, Europe and Asia.  The rewalkers as we call them, they learn from each other about how to use it better,” Jasinski said.