2 Oct 2012

‘New door has opened’ with robotic exoskeleton

Channel 4 Paralympics presenter Sophie Morgan describes the thrill of walking using the Rex exoskeleton robot – and asks if one day it will change the way people relate to disability.

Last week the extraordinary Rex, an exoskeleton robot from New Zealand, returned to the UK for its second visit. Having been introduced to CEO Helen Robinson earlier in the year, I had been kept in the loop and when the time came for Rex to make its way over the globe once more, I was invited to trial it. I have just finished working for Channel 4 as part of the presenting team for the Paralympics. Having met some wonderful and influential people at the channel I thought it might be worth attempting to get some interest in the robot, and thankfully found myself in the office of someone who was as fascinated with the technology as I am!

So we quickly started filming as Rex wasn’t here for long. First stop was he Wellcome Trust in London, who were holding an event called Superhuman in which I was to “walk”. The coincidence was fantastic, as of course “Superhumans” was a word that had been used by C4 to describe the Paralympic athletes, and the event showcased some of the worlds most ground-breaking technology and brought to light the concept of human enhancement.

Having seen first hand at the Paras what people can achieve when technology removes the boundaries of limitation (think of Richard Whitehead or Hannah Cockroft for example!), it was fascinating to contemplate the future of technology and what it might mean for disabled people. No longer do we need a “cure” to achieve our dreams. Technology is enabling us to defy our physical limitations… and the limit to what we could achieve is perhaps endless.

Shortly after the exhibition in London we travelled to my home town, Brighton, where we filmed at my home and along the beach. This was where the reality of the experience hit me, as I saw my world from a different perspective and lived out some of my day-to-day life from the robot. It is hard to explain just how thrilling it is to use Rex, or what makes it so magical, as it will differ for everyone, but really it was the smallest things that made it so unforgettable. Hugging, cleaning, cooking, standing, reaching, moving… the list is endless.

However it is relatively bitter sweet as I don’t own a robot – I was simply trialling it, for currently they cost £150,000. Time and demand will lower that figure, of course, but for now it’s out of my reach, which means I will have to wait patiently for Rex to come back to the UK once more for me to be able to stand again.

Having adapted fully and contentedly to my disability and wheelchair – which in all honestly is currently much more effective than Rex when it comes to getting around – it is strange to start thinking about standing and walking again, and I had initially worried that I would feel very unsatisfied in a chair after having used the robot. But what has happened, in effect, is that a new door has opened to a world where, despite my disability, I can still have the freedom of standing and moving, but that the condition I have adapted to doesn’t need to change.

Much like the start of the mobile phone, robotic exoskeletons will evolve, in so doing become lighter, quicker and quieter – as well as more affordable. What we are witnessing with Rex is the beginning if a new technology that will in time change the way humans relate and understand disability. It’s an utter privilege to be a part of the journey and I can’t wait to see where it will go next… Maybe one day ill be jogging down Brighton beach with an exoskeleton robot under my trousers and my wheelchair in the skip!!