Vanderbilt Exoskeleton Promises More Independence For The Paralyzed


Today’s guest blog post comes from Joseph Hill. Joseph writes on behalf of Pannone Personal Injury documenting research into disability and assistive technology.

A team of engineers at Vanderbilt University have developed an exoskeleton which gives people who suffer from paraplegia or have suffered severe spinal cord injuries, the ability to walk again.

Brian Shaffer, who is paralyzed from the waist  down,  testing the Vanderbilt exoskeleton  at Shepherd Center's satellite facility in  Franklin, Tenn. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University)

Brian Shaffer, who is paralyzed from the waist
 down,  testing the Vanderbilt exoskeleton 
at Shepherd Center’s satellite facility in 
Franklin, Tenn. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University)

The device was developed by Professor of Medicine and Rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University, Michael Goldfarb. The exoskeleton provides its users with a degree of independence which can’t be met with a standard wheel chair. Its lightweight and compact size enables the paraplegic to stand, sit, walk and climb stairs, things that some of us may take for granted at times.

The device acts as an external skeleton and securely straps around waist and then ridged supports are strapped above and below the knee. The hip and knee joints are controlled by electric motors which are powered by advanced batteries. The patient is also advised to use forearm crutches with the device to establish balance when moving.

Brain Shaffer suffered a car accident around Christmas 2010 which left him paralysed from the waist down. He has been testing the exoskeleton at the Sheppard centre’s satellite facility in Franklin, in Atlanta. “My Kids have started calling me ‘Ironman’” said Brian.

photo of the exoskeleton “It’s unbelievable to stand up again. It takes concentration to use it at first but, once you catch on, it’s not that hard: The device does all the work. I don’t expect that it will completely replace the wheelchair, but there are some situations, like walking your daughter down the aisle at her wedding or sitting in the bleachers watching your son play football, where it will be priceless,”

The device weights about 27 pounds in total, which is around half the weight of other models which can weigh up to 45-50 pounds. Not only is this model the lightest and most advanced exoskeleton in development, but it is also predicted to be the cheapest once it makes it to market. The price of other existing models on the market have price tags as high as $140,000, however Vanderbilt University believe that by using the manufacturing capability of Parker Hannifin and Goldfarb’s minimalist design, they will be able to keep the cost down to hopefully make the thought of an exoskeleton a more affordable product.

“It would be wonderful if we could get the price down to a level where individuals could afford them and insurance companies would cover them,” Claire Hartigan, a physical therapist at the Shepherd Centre, has worked with various different exo-skeletons and is really excited by the new developments. 

“This is an extremely exciting new technology,” said Clare.

According to Hartigan, just getting out of the seating position and standing up can have major health benefits. People who spend a large part of their life in a seated position can suffer from osteoporosis, pressure sores and blood clots, whilst also developing serious problems with their respiratory, urinary, cardiovascular and digestive systems. Interestingly, the risk of developing these health issues can be considerably reduced by regularly standing, moving and exercising the lower limbs. Despite also working with the Argo and Ekso, Claire and her colleagues recognise the Vanderbilt as the most promising rehabilitative home device in development.

Test session of the exoskeleton: The test subject, Brian Shaffer, is followed by Shepherd Center  physical therapist Scott Hawes, Vanderbilt engineer Don Truex and Vanderbilt graduate  students Kevin Ha and Spencer Murray. (Mike Todd/Vanderbilt University)

Test session of the exoskeleton: The test subject, Brian Shaffer, is followed by Shepherd Center
 physical therapist Scott Hawes, Vanderbilt engineer Don Truex and Vanderbilt graduate 
students Kevin Ha and Spencer Murray. (Mike Todd/Vanderbilt University)

“You can think of our exoskeleton as a Segway with legs,” said Goldfarb. “If the person wearing it leans forward, he moves forward. If he leans back and holds that position for a few seconds, he sits down. When he is sitting down, if he leans forward and holds that position for a few seconds, then he stands up.”

Leaning technology is however not the most advanced technology which has been integrated into this device. The Vanderbilt design is also the first wearable robot to incorporate a proven rehabilitation technology called Functional Electrical Stimulation. FES applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles, causing them to contract and relax. This can improve strength in the legs of people with incomplete paraplegia and for complete paraplegics, FES can improve circulation, change bone density and reduce muscle atrophy. The amount of robotic assistance also adjusts automatically for users who have some muscle control in their legs. This allows them to partially use their own muscles which have rehabilitate benefits, but when a user is totally paralyzed the device does all the work. This again is completely unique to the Vanderbilt design.

The exoskeleton is currently being tested and refined at the Shepherd Center, Atlanta, Georgia, a rehabilitation hospital that focuses on rehabilitation and research into people who suffer from spinal cord or brain injury. The Vanderbilt Exoskeleton should be released into the market sometime next year.


  1. A very insightful article Mr Hill. Well done!

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