Rex Bionics inks US Army deal to test robot exoskeletons with amputees

Auckland robotics company Rex Bionics has signed a deal with the United States Army to help amputee soldiers get back on their feet.

The special agreement means the firm, which develops robotic suits and legs, will be able to test out its developing “Rex Suit” technology on hundreds of maimed veterans

Rex Bionics has spent many years and millions of dollars getting its robotic legs fit for commercial sale.

Company co-founder Richard Little said the deal had massive potential for the company which was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2014, but has lost 80 per cent of its share value since then.

Rex Bionics chief technology officer Richard Little puts Prime Minister John Key through his paces during a recent visit.
Rex Bionics chief technology officer Richard Little puts Prime Minister John Key through his paces during a recent visit.

He said the American military project would allow the technology to be tweaked to help those with missing limbs as well as people who had lost the use of them.

The text of the agreement reveals the US the Army believed there was potential for “broad applicability” to use Rex technology across the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.

Little said: “It should be relatively straightforward for us to get some of these US Army guys back up and walking around again.”

Rex Bionics was co-founded in 2003 by Little and multiple sclerosis sufferer, Robert Irvingwho are Scots-born childhood friends

Inspired by the ‘power loader’ exoskeleton worn by Sigourney Weaver’s character in Aliens, the pair set out to design and build a pair of robotic legs.

The resulting Rex Suits are operated by a joystick that allows the wearer to walk, move sideways, turn around, climb stairs, and exercise.

Little said it was hard to describe the experience of watching someone stand and walk after being in a wheelchair for years.

“Every time – it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it before – it’s very emotional.”

Little said the Rex legs were not designed with any particular illness or injury in mind, and amputees were a new field.

A US Army review could not find any devices that would allow patients with limb loss to stand up and move early in the recovery process.

The version of the Rex device used for rehabilitation could be adjusted to fit anyone from an 11-year-old to a 2 metre tall basketball player in a few minutes.

Little said the company was starting to see people who used the legs in rehab centres enquiring about a personal device.

“It’s not only a rehabilitation machine, when it’s in there, it’s also a sales tool.”

Following its stock market misting, Rex Bionics initially focused on laying the regulatory and quality groundwork, it made its first three sales during the start of the 2015/16 financial year.

The hefty price tag of £90,000 (NZ$186,000) means the machine remains out of reach for most individuals.

Little said the price would come down with scale and refinements, and he would ultimately like to see it closer to the cost of a family car.

Another major development in overcoming the cost barrier was a landmark court ruling in the United Kingdom which saw a private insurance company pay out for a Rex device.

“That’s massive for us, because that’s where the market will be. It’ll be insurance companies saying it’s cheaper to have people on their feet and healthy over their life, than it is to have them sitting in a chair the whole time.”

Ben Barnes broke his back in two places in a 2011 car accident, and was left paralysed in a wheelchair.

Following the court ruling, Barnes received a Rex device paid for by his insurer.

“The initial feeling of being upright and at eye level is priceless, not to mention the health benefits,” he said.

“This is going to change everything for me.”

A report by independent research group WinterGreen last year found the market for robotic exoskeletons for medical applications was about to boom, with global sales forecast to reach US$2.1 billion (NZ$3.1b) by 2021.

Rex’s directors have signalled they intend to raise further funds by issuing more shares this year.

The company reported a pre-tax loss of of £2.3 million for the half-year ending September.

Little did not believe its lower share price reflected the inherent value and prospects of the company.

Science fiction was fast becoming science fact, he said.

“You can’t imagine that in 20 years time, you’re going to get a wheelchair rather than a robotic exoskeleton if you have a spinal cord injury.”