Exoskeletons hold "tremendous potential" to ease those burdens, said David Accetta, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts. A field demonstration is planned for May, he said by email. Lockheed said the program hasn't been affected by mandated budget cuts that began March 1.
Parker Hannifin, which has been working with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is targeting Indego at the estimated 700,000 Americans with spinal cord injuries, said Achilleas Dorotheou, the program's business unit manager. Another pool of potential users: the estimated 600,000 stroke survivors, many who are left with difficulties walking, he said.
Michael Gore, 42, who hasn't walked on his own since falling 11 years ago from the mezzanine of a North Carolina vinyl-siding factory, has used an Indego exoskeleton to traverse uneven terrain and climb stairs. He has been testing the model since 2010 at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a private, nonprofit hospital specializing in spinal-cord injury treatment.
"It's just a big emotional high to be able to stand up and speak to people face-to-face, eye-to-eye, instead of having to look up all the time," Gore said in a telephone interview.
For now, the devices still require the use of crutches to maintain balance, and people probably will use them in combination with wheelchairs, Dorotheou said.
Parker Hannifin is playing catch-up with Argo Medical, which was founded by Amit Goffer, an Israeli who was paralyzed in a 1997 automobile accident. The Yokneam Illit, Israel-based company has sold about 65 medical exoskeletons, 20 of them to individuals in Europe.
Argo Medical still lacks federal clearance for U.S. sales to individuals, and the company may offer a product with fewer features to speed approval, CEO Larry Jasinski said.
Insurance companies eventually may cover part of the tab for medical exoskeletons because of the health benefits of greater mobility, Jasinski said. Ailments from sitting for prolonged periods include bone loss, urinary-tract complications, pressure sores, diabetes and obesity, he said.
Gore, who played sports in high school and worked on the family farm before his fall, is eager to see prices drop and insurers decide that the expense of an exoskeleton outweighs the medical costs of keeping the disabled in wheelchairs.
"If insurance would help out and I had to borrow $10,000 or $15,000, I would do that," Gore said. "I would love to have one."