At a press conference held this morning in San Francisco, California’s Berkeley Bionics unveiled its eLEGS exoskeleton. The computer-controlled device is designed to be worn by paraplegics, providing the power and support to get them out of their wheelchairs, into a standing posture, and walking – albeit with the aid of crutches. The two formerly wheelchair-bound “test pilots” in attendance did indeed use eLEGS to walk across the stage, in a slow-but-steady gait similar to that of full-time crutch-users.

eLEGS is worn over the clothing (including the shoes), and people who are capable of transferring themselves out of their wheelchairs reportedly should be able to get in and out of the exoskeleton within one to two minutes. It can be adjusted to fit users between 5’2” and 6’4” (157 and 193 cm), weighing no more than 220 lbs (100 kg). Once they’re standing, the onboard computer utilizes sensors to observe the user’s gestures. It then determines what the user intends to do, based on those gestures, and assists them accordingly in real time.

The device weighs 45 lbs (20 kg) and has a battery life of about six hours, under normal use. A maximum walking speed in excess of 2mph (3.22km/h) can be attained.

Not only should the device allow the paralyzed to walk, in a mechanical way, but it could also be used to retrain the muscles and nerve connections of people who have been rendered temporarily unable to do so.

Clinical trials are scheduled for early 2011, with a limited release in select American rehabilitation clinics within the second half of that year. Training will be provided for therapists, and patients will be able to apply to take part in the eLEGS gait training program. Farther down the road, Berkeley would like to see the product available for home users, so they could put it on in the morning and use it all day.

Berkeley Bionics is no stranger to exoskeletons. It already produces the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), which allows able-bodied soldiers to carry loads of up to 200 lbs (91 kg) over rugged terrain.