WATCH | Modular exosuit helps paraplegic ex-trapeze artist walk again

A modular lightweight exoskeleton has allowed former circus acrobat Silke Pan to walk again after a fall from a trapeze rendered her paraplegic ten years ago, as she demonstrated to Reuters’ Jim Drury.

Ten years ago Silke Pan was a circus acrobat, at the top of her profession. But a trapeze fall left her a paraplegic. Now she’s walking again, thanks to this prototype exoskeleton, known as TWIICE.

“The first time that I stood up with the exoskeleton was really emotional for me. It was as if I were in a dream,” Silke Pan, paraplegic, former professional circus acrobat, saying.

Made by roboticists at Switzerland’s EPFL, it weighs just 14 kilograms. Two electric motors on each leg allow flexion and extension of hip and knee joints. Battery powered, it allows users to walk, turn, and climb steps, by pressing buttons on their crutch handles. A full charge lasts three hours.

“We can create any shape we want, but it’s much more high-performance. It’s very lightweight, but also very very strong. So it’s made with composite materials but we can create any shape that we want very quickly and without the need of expensive tooling or expensive investment at the front end,” Tristan Vouga, EPFL mechanical engineer, saying.

A modular system, the exosuit could be adapted to different body shapes and pathologies. Having the ability to stand should help the disabled feel parity with the able-bodied, say researchers.

“Our objective is really to develop and give the accessibility to exoskeletons, to more people, to more pathologies, to more needs, and this is why we are really targeting daily living activities,” Mohamed Bouri, group leader at EPFL’s Robotic Systems Laboratory (LSRO),and project supervisor.

Silke Pan says TWIICE could change lives.

“I hope that in a few years people like me will be able to choose between a wheelchair and an exoskeleton, maybe to have both and to live their daily life with it; to go shopping with it, to climb stairs, to climb a ladder,” Pan, saying.

Researchers want to improve the suit’s ergonomics, but Silke says TWIICE is already helping her to walk tall.