Written by Phil Cerroni
Exoskeleton worn by wounded warrior inspires students to pursue science
By Sissy Courtney
Chief Warrant Officer Gary Linfoot, who was paralyzed in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Iraq in 2008, visited with Irving High School engineering students Oct. 25, Keller High School students Oct. 26 and demonstrated how he can walk using an Exoskeleton made by Ekso Bionics.
The Irving High School engineering students have been working on projects to design adaptive devices for disabled veterans, and have built prototypes of their designs. The Keller High School students were from medical, engineering, health sciences, anatomy and physiology classes.
Linfoot’s school visits coincided with Sky Ball X, the Airpower Foundation’s fundraiser, a series of patriotic events presented by American Airlines, Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport and Bell Helicopter. This year’s celebration honored those who have served in Iraq and saluted the Marines on the 100th anniversary of Marine Aviation.
“During the Iraq war, five months out of the year, I was overseas,” Linfoot said. “Even when I was home, oftentimes I would step off the jet on Friday and on Saturday morning or Monday morning, I was stepping onto another jet to go train somewhere else. There were sometimes when I was in the continental United States, but I wasn’t home.”
Linfoot flew combat helicopters for special operations forces around the world.
“When the phone would ring, I wouldn’t know if I was going to see him in two days, two weeks or two months,” his wife said.
Retired Warrant Officer Linfoot served as an attack helicopter pilot in the army for 23 years, from 1987 until he was medically retired in 2010.
“I was a member of the 160th special operations aviation regiment,” Linfoot said. “Our job was to support our special operations forces around the world, wherever they were. My first combat deployment was to Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11. It was a short tour of duty, about 90 days. The next one was when we went into Iraq in 2003.”
From then until 2008, Linfoot served 20 rotations in Iraq.
“The night I was injured was just a typical combat mission for us,” Linfoot said. “We’d taken off to go out and support the ground force,and we had mechanical failure. A small part in the helicopter failed, and we lost our engine and had a hard landing. My back was broken; I sustained a spinal cord injury. My co-pilot was also injured but thankfully, he’s made a full recovery, and he’s back flying today.
“When the helicopter crashed, I immediately knew my legs didn’t work because I couldn’t get out of the aircraft. At that moment in time, I wasn’t really thinking ahead about what it meant to me and what was going to happen. My immediate thoughts were trying to get exited from the crash site because I was in an area where there was known enemy activity, and we didn’t want to be around there too long. It was a matter of getting guys to the crash site to get us out of there.
“Once I got home, the severity of the injury started to set in and what it meant long term for myself and my family,” Linfoot said. “When I got home, I had a four month recovery period, and obviously I was in a wheelchair. I had to figure out how to do things in life again, everything from getting around the house to driving a car, and I’ve come in contact with some remarkable equipment – adaptive equipment and equipment that just make life easier for me. I can do just about everything; I just have to figure out a way to do it.”
He said he does events like this to let people know what is out there and what the future holds for technology, but that it is also important for people to know the true cost of war.
“We have thousands of men and women who have been killed, and tens of thousands have been injured,” Linfoot said. “I think the overall public loses sight of that after a while, so it’s good to come to these events so people can put a face to what they are hearing on the news.”
Linfootspoke as he sat in his iBot-wheelchair.
“This was presented to me four years ago at Sky Ball. It’s a pretty amazing piece of equipment,” he said as he proceeded to show the students the maneuvers the chair can execute.
He said he can take it up hills, over grass, across a sandy beach, and go up and down stairs as the wheels go Slinky-like, one right over the other. The chair can stand him up to about six feet tall, which is about his original height before the accident, and it can balance on two wheels and move around.
The man who invented the wheelchair also invented the Segway. Linfoot said the chair constantly makes adjustments for his center of gravity and that he has had people come up and push it, and it will not tip over.
“It has made life easier for me, and it all started with an idea,” Linfoot said. “The inventor saw a guy who wanted to go into a mall and he had to go up a couple of stairs, and he couldn’t do it in his chair. So Dean (Kaman) saw something that needed fixing, and put his mind to it, and came up with a great idea. If you go on through your college process, and that’s the route that your lives go, I hope that you see things out there in the world that need fixing and apply your mind to it and make great things happen.”
He said they have had to stop making the iBot wheelchair because insurance companies will not reimburse the full cost of the chair, and the company was unable to make a profit.
“The first time I used the exoskeleton was just over three weeks ago for a quick train-up on it,” Linfoot said. “Right now, the exoskeleton is not released for home use. It’s used in rehab facilities for people who are newly injured and trying to learn to walk again. The goal of the company in four or five years (approximately) is to have it refined enough and light enough that it is something people can take home and use on an everyday basis.”
He said the exoskeleton does not make him tired because it does all the work.
“I just have to figure out where the balance point is as far as standing and taking steps, it’s not very taxing at all. It actually feels good on the body to stand back up and get stretched out. Imagine if you had to sit in a chair all day. After a while, you get uncomfortable. The natural state of the human body is to be upright and mobile.”
Twenty-seven year old Dr. Katie Strausser, PhD. was there to explain how the exoskeleton works and to encourage students to pursue careers in science, math and technology. She said it was not long ago that she was sitting in her high school auditorium in Houston just like the students, who were her audience. She said when she was 15; she thought she’d be working for NASA.
“I knew that I loved robotics; I never thought that I’d be back in front of a high school walking with a guy in a robot, but some things work out really awesomely,” Strausser said.
Her company Ekso Bionics is still refining the robot.
“We’re working on all of the practical events like how you would bend down to get a pot out of a cabinet or how to step into your bathroom and brush teeth while wearing it,” she said. “They hope to be out with a personal device in a few years.
“It’s (the way it works is) a combination of where the weight is and where the joints are,” Strausser said. “We have sensors on the feet to tell where the weight is, and we have sensors at each of the joints so we can kind of tell the position. It’s looking for a position shift basically.”
“There is a lot of work on brain interfacing,” Strausser said. “That would be the ideal for it to know exactly what you want to do, but that involves brain surgery. When you stick things in the brain, the brain reacts to it and forms a scar around it, so that the brain protects itself. Then, we’re not able to get a signal through the probe, but there are a lot of people working on machine/brain interfacing, and we really hope that they do it quickly so that we can hook it up to our robot.
“They’ve had some recent breakthroughs with surface mount electrodes and with rehabbing some of the muscles,” Strausser said. “You guys could do it, so let me know when you figure it out.”
When Linfoot used the robot to stand up three weeks ago, it was the first time in four and a half years that he had stood.
“It had been so long since I’d seen him tall,” his wife said. “It was neat; I was snapping pictures, and I couldn’t email them or text them fast enough to our kids so they could see him.”
Linfoot said the impact of it really did not register until he got home and saw the video.
“My God – I’m actually standing up and taking steps – something I’ll probably never do (on my own) again,” Linfoot said. The couple’s college-age children were scheduled to arrive that evening to see their father standing.
Three students at Irving High School gave their views on the assembly. The three students had worked together in their Engineering, Design and Process class to design a wheelchair similar to Linfoot’s iBot chair. They said they did not know one was actually in service until they saw his.
David Ramos: “I thought it was pretty amazing, because we might just think of some of the things that we saw as just imagination or just made up ideas that could happen in the future, but in this presentation here we saw that some of those ideas aren’t that far away from what actually is happening now, and we see that technology is advancing at a fast rate – faster than we think it’s going to happen.”
Thomas Garcia: (During the assembly, the students also saw a bomb sniffing dog who had been injured in combat.) “Luca was pretty cool. She was an army dog and saved lots of lives, even though she lost her leg. An IED blew off her foot, and they removed her entire leg to help with balance. She was walking within two weeks of the surgery.”
BhavikPatel: People take all that stuff for granted or they don’t think it’s possible, but it is possible because they’re doing it right now. (The soldiers) are dedicated, and they protect us, and we are where we are right now because of them.”
The fundraising efforts of Sky Ball X helps further research into devices and to provide available technology to help military service men and women injured in service to the United States.