We’ve covered robotic exoskeleton prototypes in the past here on Inhabitat, but Ekso Bionics just announced plans to launch a fully-functioning commercial model! Think about it – within two years, this exoskeleton will help thousands of paraplegics trade their wheelchairs for the ability to walk again. The Ekso exoskeleton has been selected as a finalist for the world’s biggest design prize – the 2013 INDEX: Award.

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Based in California, Ekso Bionics has announced that it will first begin to sell its Ekso-suit to rehab clinics in the United States and Europe in order to allow patients with spinal cord injuries to train with the device under a doctor’s supervision. However by late 2013 or early 2014 the company plans to release a model for daily living. This will allow every-day people to experience its benefits.

The Ekso-suit is essentially a large robot. It supports its 20 kg frame on skeletal legs and does most of the work for the user. All they have to do is to balance their upper body, shifting their weight as they plant a walking stick on either side of the frame. These sticks will have motion sensors in them that then communicate with the legs, allowing the user to take complete control.

“We took the idea of the external skele­ton, and we added nerves in the form of sensors and motors that represent your muscles and computers that represent your brain,” says Eythor Bender, CEO of Ekso Bionics.

While other companies are planning to release exoskeleton suits in the future, Ekso’s advantage lies in both its timing and experience. The company has already designed the ExoHiker, an exoskeleton that allows able-bodied people to carry 90 kg (about 200 pounds) with minimal exertion, and they have also designed load-carriers for the military.

Ekso has already secured a number of clients including the Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. Speaking to IEEE Spectrum, Kristjan T. Ragnarsson, chairman of the department of rehabilitation medicine, said that over the past 40 years, his patients’ priorities have never changed. “The first thing they want to know is whether they will walk again,” says Ragnarsson. “As their physician, I always have to address that question. I’m optimistic, actually, that this will work. I think my patients will be able to stand up and take a few steps and face the next person directly on!”

+ Ekso Bionics

+ INDEX: Award