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Bionic legs bring freedom for paraplegics

Published: 4:58PM Thursday July 15, 2010 Source: ONE News

A New Zealand company has invented a pair of bionic legs that allows a paraplegic to walk again.

Auckland inventors Richard Little and Robert Irving have been working on Rex, the Robotic Exoskeleton, for seven years.

The device serves as a pair of robotic legs for people who would normally be confined to a wheelchair. It enables the user to stand, walk and even climb steps.

Today's launch was attended by Prime Minister John Key who praised the inventors for helping put New Zealand design at the cutting edge of technology.

When Hayden Allen's spinal cord was injured five years ago doctors told him he would never walk again. But Hayden has been one of the first people in the world to use the bionic legs.

"I'll never forget what it was like to see my feet walking under me the first time I used Rex," says Hayden, who is 193cm tall when standing.

"People say to me, 'look up when you're walking' but I just can't stop staring down at my feet moving."

Being out of his chair and on his feet again allows Hayden many more options on a day to day basis, increasing opportunities for employment and recreational activities by providing access for him to independently go places previously inaccessible to him.

Rex is the brainchild of childhood friends Little and Irving. "Both of our mothers are in wheelchairs so we are aware of some of the obstacles and access issues faced by many wheelchair users," says Little.

Irving's Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis seven years ago was the catalyst for the men to put their engineering skills to use to develop a practical, standing and walking alternative to wheelchairs.

They say Rex is not a replacement for a wheelchair, but a complement that offers a range of options not currently available anywhere else in the world.

It is suitable for manual wheelchair users who can self-transfer and operate hand controls. Potential customers must complete a medical appraisal including checks with their own physician to ensure their general health and suitability before they can begin the process of fitting and training.

"For many of my patients Rex represents the first time they've been able to stand up and walk for years," says Auckland neurologist Richard Roxburgh.

"There are obvious immediate benefits in terms of mobility, improved social interaction and self-image. There are also likely to be major long term health and quality of life benefits through reducing the complications of being in a wheelchair all the time," says Dr Roxburgh who is the Medical Adviser to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"I think that this will also enable people to stay well longer; this means that those who have conditions where disease modifying treatments are coming over the next five to ten years, will be in better shape when those treatments finally arrive."

Each Rex is built onsite at the Rex Bionics' Auckland plant. It has a long-life rechargeable battery with sufficient power for a typical day of use.

It will cost approximately $US150,000 and is expected to be available for purchase in New Zealand by the end of the year and in other countries by the middle of 2011. It will be slightly cheaper in New Zealand and the decision to purchase will be based on an individual assessment.

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