Whitney, 22, walked across the stage to shake the hand of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s hand, and there wasn’t a single person who didn’t cheer him on as he made the triumphant few steps to do it.
Led by Professor Homayoon Kazerooni – the engineering team has been developing the computerized body brace and hope that it will be able to be sold to wheelchair users at an affordable price soon. Whitney worked with the team nine months to test and advise the team on the brace, as he readied himself for presenting it at the graduation.
Whitney was in a bad car accident four years prior when he wrapped his car around a tree after a night out with friends. He severed his spine above the hips and spent 41 days in the hospital. Then, 10 days later he enrolled in college.
As this was going on, the team of UC Berkeley engineers had been developing the exoskeleton. Kazerooni and his team had been making the exoskeletons for almost 10 years as part of their research to find a better way for Army soldiers to carry heavy loads over long distances. Then, it turned into Berkeley Bionics in 2005.
They quickly figured out that it would benefit people who couldn’t walk, and last October put out E-Legs, which is an exoskeleton being sold to rehabilitation clinics. Right now it costs about $90,000. However, the newer exoskeleton that Whitney presented was a stripped down, no frills walking device and is expected to cost only $15,000, which is about the same as higher end wheelchairs.
When a wearer wants to walk, he tells the exoskeleton what to do using a switch on the walker or crutches, which sends s signal to the computer and it carries out the motion.
Whitney helped with the development by telling the team things like how the unit needed flatter feet so it wouldn’t be so unstable. He says that it is a thrill to be able to walk again, because his doctors said it was impossible.