“Today we have just seen a wondrous example of Berkeley at its finest,” Chancellor Robert Birgeneau told the crowd in May 2011.

A man named Austin Whitney had just done something he thought he’d never do: walk across the Berkeley campus stage to receive his diploma. He was paralyzed in a car crash in 2007. Then he met Kazerooni.

Four years later Whitney rose from his wheelchair and accepted his degree and a hearty hug from the chancellor. He still needed the support of a walker connected to a newly designed set of exo-legs made from mostly off-the-shelf parts.

Truly, this was a miracle, and Kaz was happy so many bore witness.

“The most important thing is when I saw the other students who were able to see the results of our work,” he says. “I was able to educate a whole group of people.”

As impactful as inspiring a whole generation is, Kaz recalls how excited Austin was for a different accomplishment prior to the ceremony: standing up to pee—an able-bodied luxury he had been denied for at least four years.

Austin was so excited “he went in there and was screaming,” Kazerooni recalls.

The Austin prototype became the Phoenix, the robotic avatar designed to help its users rise from the ashes.

One of those users was Steve Sanchez.

Sanchez was paralyzed in a BMX accident near San Jose in 2004. He bailed mid-jump and fell wrong. That one miscalculation led to an irreparably damaged spinal cord and what he thought would be a lifetime in a wheelchair. For an adventurous 17-year-old, the hope he clung to was finding a cure.

He traveled to China for stem cell therapy and eventually resorted to painful leg braces.

“I trained to kill the nerves in my hands so I could stand up longer,” Sanchez says laughing. “I was destroying my hands, the things I had left, for the ability to walk maybe 10 ,maybe 20 feet before I was so exhausted I couldn’t move again.”

Sanchez says it took “150% effort“ just to take a few steps.

His roommate had worked with Kazerooni testing the eLEGS and was invited to test Kaz’s new medical exoskeleton developed by the newly formed suitX prototype in the summer of 2012.  The roommate wasn’t all that interested, but Sanchez saw this as his opportunity.

A week later, Sanchez was wearing the new prototype and walking down the hallway to his parents. That moment was caught by a BBC documentary filmmaker, and is NSFW if you have a tough guy image to protect.

He’s now the product’s chief test pilot, and because of his background as a CNC programmer and inspector, checks all suitX products prior to assembly.

The guy who is uniquely suited to use the suit is also responsible for quality for the whole company.

“It gives a more natural motion, it feels more like I’m walking,” Sanchez says. “I’m at about 10-15% effort.”

He tried on both the Ekso and the ReWalk  Robotics exoskeleton, which both can cost more than $80,000. They both have powered knees, a good feature for climbing, but feels akin to a roller coaster while the Phoenix is a bicycle, he says.

Recently, Sanchez, a wine enthusiast, ventured out to Napa Valley with the suit, wearing it out in public for the first time not on company time.

Instead of sitting near the lower tables, Sanchez popped up and stood at the bar, with people now filled more with curiosity than pity.

“They see the wheelchair moving, they don’t see the person,” he says. “Being able to stand there, eye to eye with everybody, really hit me to a point where I really felt alive again.”

The Phoenix is currently awaiting FDA approval, which could come by early 2018. Kaz expects it to retail for $30,000. That’s the price of a Camry, not a Corvette, well within someone’s means.

“In 10 years, it could cost $10,000,” Sanchez says, and that’s a number Kaz find within the realm of possibilities. Our editor Travis Hessman often says ,“I fricking love the future,” probably too much. But this is one time he’s fricking right.

There’s another impending robotic development, though, that is on a collision course with society: Robots in the workforce.

eXo-Manual Labor

Robots are taking over the industrial work place; it’s inevitable. Take your pick of studies or just look on the plant floor. They grow every year in number, increase in applications, and drop in cost.

Most imagine the science-fiction version of exoskeletons, such as the industrial CAT Power Loader in Aliens to the military power suits in Edge of Tomorrow, but really they’re just robotic tools. 

“As presented by sci-fi in the last 15 years, exoskeletons are about a man going inside a machine, running, and punching people — Iron Man-type things,” Kazerooni says. “It’s augmenting them to fight.”

It’s a premise first explored in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and in 2000, DARPA gave funding to the Berkeley lab to flesh out its Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX), consisting of motorized legs, sensors and actuators, a battery, and back pack frame, diverting the weight of a 75-lb. load out to the robot, not the grunt.

“You put $100,000 into training one soldier, and then they get a back injury from carrying a load,” explains Kazerooni. “My very early proposal had nothing in there to make soldiers stronger. We always talked about ankle injuries, back injuries.”

The team worked on a more combat ready version of BLEEX: the hydraulically–powered HULC, or Human Universal Load Carrier, which was announced in 2009 and seemed to go more the teenage-boy version of an exosuit route. The 53-lb. HULC allows the user to carry up to 200 lb. and run 10 mph. Lockheed Martin licensed the rights. It seemed to be the start of the military trying to go full Iron Man.

Kazerooni had also been working with the Department of Labor, trying to identify how to prevent worker injuries through the robotics tech he specializes in.

The BLS says that 25,000 total warehouse workers, or 5%, suffered work-related injuries in 2015. Overextertion injuries overall cost $15 billion a year, and $68 billion when you factor in lost productivity, training new workers, higher insurance costs, and more.

One solution has been to automate more and add more robots everywhere.

While Kazerooni concedes robots simply work better and more safely in fixed repetitive tasks, like spot welding in an auto factory, he adds that even smart robots have trouble handling different shaped objects. None has the mobility and intelligence of a primate honed through millions of years for problem-solving, so his latest exoskeleton combines the best of both worlds.

“Why not combine human intelligence with robotic strength?” Kazerooni asks. “That’s the thesis of my work.”

It’s called the MAX, short for Modular Agile eXoskeleton, and its Kaz’s simplest, cheapest, and most far-reaching invention yet.

That experience with the Department of Labor helped him identify the three problem areas for a worker: the back, knees, and shoulders. So the MAX uses compressed springs to mechanically resist forces, such as a cement block you picked up. If you’re wearing the whole shebang, when you bend over the legX piece kicks in to relieve strain at the knees and the backX diverts the weight of your torso and the object through the steel and aluminum frame down to the ground, not your spine. Then, if you have to hold that block above your head to hand it to someone on another level, the shoulderX takes the weight.

There are no batteries, you can put it on in less time than it takes to put on a three-piece suit, and the whole device costs $11,000 together and is available as separate units: $3,000 for the backX and shoulder, and $5,000 for the legX.

“Based on experiments done in the lab, we are dropping stresses by about 50% for payloads of 30 or 40 lb.,” Kazerooni explains. “As the payloads go up to 100 lb., they reduce about 40%. If you’re picking up 50 lb., it makes it feel like 20 to 25 lb.”

Let’s say you bend over to pick up 20-lb. boxes 8 times a minute, for 8 hours a day. That’s 19,200 bends a week. If you had to do this for 50 weeks a year, and wore the backX for three years, you are paying about a dime extra a lift and likely preventing an injury that could cost a ton more and haunt you with nagging back aches the rest of your life.

“The way I see it, we’re just making it so a FedEx worker doesn’t get injured,” Kazerooni offers.

As previously mentioned, the MAX can reduce the relative weight of an object by 50%. A UC Berkeley study on the backX found that it averages a 60% reduction in EMG muscle activities at four of the most injury-prone lower back muscle groups.

That’s the big thing with this exosuit. It’s real, for real people, and it works. It looks about as cool and sexy as a safety harness.

One thing Hollywood doesn’t show you is that when the camera isn’t rolling, their exosuits are glorified props, needing to be moved with chains, the actors having to be lowered into them. You can drive a car or do yoga in the MAX, and it takes under a minute to put any piece on.

When you’re at war with real robots, not CGI aliens, that’s gotta’ count for something.

Engineering the Future

Will this be the exoskeleton that takes off?

At this point, it’s hard to say.

Kaz’s former company has its own industrial exoskeleton, the $5,000 EksoWorks Vest, which supports tool holding at waist level. BMW is expected to have 68 in service at the Spartanburg, South Carolina plant.

The Noonee Chairless Chair, which works a bit like the legX, is also being tried out there to help people take a load off.

And another professor, Tom Sugar at Arizona State, has developed a hip exoskeleton as part of the DARPA Warrior Web Program. Sugar says that applying an assistive force 5 to 15 Newton meters of torque, a person’s stride is increased and pushes them to walk faster. Figuring that some manufacturing workers walk 10 to 15 miles a day in the plant, this would give them a 10-15% speed boost.

SuitX has one thing going for it the others don’t, though. And that of course is Kazerooni. He has become the de facto Father of Exoskeletons, and for good reason.

Working his way up from nothing, he feels the plight of the common worker, and he has a sense of justice that the underdog must not only be protected, but lifted up so that one day no one feels the depths of despair due to a disability.

And while other on Berkeley’s campus choose to change the world by breaking windows and shutting down free speech, Kazerooni, who doesn’t get political, stays in his basement lab at Etcheverry Hall and gets to work on his next miracle: inspiring his students to become the next Kaz... or least to work as hard as they can to get the most out of their abilities.

“I don’t take this lightly,” he says. “I have to make them good engineers. That’s the way we make the future.”


John Hitch is a staff writer for New Equipment Digest, a companion site of IndustryWeek and part of Penton's Manufacturing & Supply Chain group.