A caravan of cars snakes its way from company headquarters to the nearby marina. Among the riders are a number of the firm's engineers, executives, and cofounders. Car by car, the group of 17 reassembles near a meandering path by the water. It's a picturesque spot on a clear, sunny afternoon—perfect for the company's video. An attractive woman traveling with them shakes her long, blond hair out of the way and prepares herself for the shoot. The others stand by expectantly. As she takes her first steps on the dirt path, her heart quickens. For Amanda Boxtel, this is heaven. She glances at those watching. All have tears in their eyes.
The young boy is "inspired by machines." His interest only grows as he does. Odd, because nobody else in his family shares this bent, from his geologist father to his homemaker mother to his three siblings. He depends on neighbors to teach him things like how to build an engine. By the time he reaches his teens, the family is used to having its own fix-it guy. But for Nathan Harding, crafting "crazy bicycles and minibikes" with his friends soon becomes mundane.
One day, the high school senior notices an old picture on the wall of his buddy's house. It's a converted bus that took the parents on a college-era jaunt to Alaska. His mind flashes to another old bus that's been sitting in the local churchyard for years. It's hard to miss—a pale green junker with "Joybus" emblazoned in black across the top, front, and back. He resolves that he and his friends will create their own adventure by rescuing Joybus from the scrapheap and taking it from their Houston suburb to California after they graduate.
Harding, ever the ringleader, has no trouble enlisting his friends in the escapade. They buy the bus for $650 and spend months converting it into a camper. Unfortunately, Harding gets mono just as the group is preparing to leave. That's OK—he'll meet them in California when he recovers. His friends take off after graduation, but just like in the Eagles' classic song, the boys are left "standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona" when the bus terminally sputters there. Harding can't help but laugh when he finds out. It's an early lesson for him that journeys sometimes have unexpected destinations.
With college on the horizon, he is "looking for answers" to his insatiable mechanical questions. He applies to Carnegie Mellon University after hearing about its "strong academics." When he drives around Pittsburgh during a visit, the school becomes his first choice. Some teenagers yearn to attend college close to the beach or stay close to home; but Harding, a self-described "gear head," is in awe when he sees the region's old steel mills. "It was like a wonderland to me," he says. "I could just drive along the river, look at equipment, and dream about all the gadgetry." He enrolls in Carnegie Mellon's mechanical engineering program.
During his junior year, he is offered a chance to do honors work at the Field Robotics Center. Chris Ivory, also an engineering student, is researching there when he hears that a kid from the class behind will be joining the group. He knows of Harding, "the guy with the cowboy hat." He soon discovers that the guy is not only "mechanically sharp," but also quick, enthusiastic, and great with team dynamics. They become friends. Ivory is impressed that Harding doesn't seem to be studying engineering just to snag a good job—he's a "build-stuff kind of guy" who'd be tinkering with things no matter what his profession. Harding is even fixing up demolition cars—shades of Joybus—in his basement.
After earning their undergraduate degrees, they go their separate ways but plan to keep in touch. Ivory (E'89), who'd been in ROTC, lands in Seattle with the Air Force. Harding (E'90) is in Berkeley, where he plans to pursue his PhD. After earning his master's, though, he decides that he's had enough school for awhile. Pondering his next move, he visits his Carnegie Mellon friend. The two trek out to the Columbia River Gorge. Up high, overlooking the river, Harding gazes at the beauty. Ivory notices that "something overtakes him." Indeed. "You know," says Harding, "we should build Joyboat II."
Joyboat II? Ivory had heard tales of Joyboat. It was built after he graduated. Harding had been in search of an old pontoon boat he could refurbish. Sure enough, he found one, a rusty ruin with holes "big enough to put your fists through." The name, of course, was in memory of his high school bus that died in Arizona. After asking Red Whittaker, the robotics center director, for space in the shop, Harding was granted a week. A few friends had the boat river-ready with time to spare. They set out for New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Joyboat needed constant repairs along the way, eking out just 300 miles to Ashland, Ky., before it had enough. In typical Joybus spirit, Harding was undaunted.
Ivory doesn't take long to sign on for Harding's latest caper, even volunteering his house. Soon, they're gathering 55-gallon drums for pontoons as they will build Joyboat II from scratch. Ivory can help only on nights and weekends; Harding, unemployed, works like an "hourly welder." Within two months, a 32-foot boat with two decks overtakes the backyard.
They cleverly designed the boat to be disassembled, so they take the contraption apart, stuff it into a rental truck, and haul it down to a fishing-boat launch in Portland, Ore. The other recreational boaters can't help but ogle at what Harding affectionately calls "Jed Clampett's boat" being reassembled on the dock. During the next month, Harding, Ivory (on leave), and assorted friends take to the water, camping out on river islands, sleeping in tents on the decks. As they pull into small towns, they find that word has spread along the riverfront, and people welcome them. Alas, jobs beckon the Joyboat II crew from the water, but all agree that the discarded drums that morphed into Joyboat II created lifetime memories.
A decade later, Harding, married and a father, hears from Homayoon Kazerooni, his former grad school advisor. Kazerooni has been researching human exoskeletons—wearable machines—and needs help. He's hit a roadblock on a power-supply issue. Intrigued, Harding signs on. The timing is perfect. Harding recently left a job in the optical fiber equipment business, where his career was flying along until the industry crashed. He brings with him a colleague, "creative genius" Russ Angold.
Kazerooni, through a grant, is working with the military. He's trying to develop something the military has been attempting to do since the 1950s, an exoskeleton that will help soldiers carry significant loads. The problem is that the machine needs a hefty power supply. A soldier using the exoskeleton couldn't haul much more than the power supply, defeating the purpose of the device. Kazerooni, Angold, and Harding agree that the only way to lessen the power supply's weight is to reduce the power consumption of the machine itself.
They start working on a unique concept: design an exoskeleton with passive parts, such as artificial knees that work like power-free hinge joints, much like the hinges on a cabinet door. After plenty of trial and error, they think they have it. BUGLY—short for Butt Ugly—is a "crazy-looking contraption with big duck feet," a conglomeration of backpacking gear, prosthetic devices, aluminum plates, and plastic sheets, reminiscent of a science project. Although it isn't pretty, its need for 5,000 watts of power has been eliminated, freeing it from a weighted power supply.
Harding is anxious to try it. Down in the "dungeon" hallway with Angold, he straps it on with a heavy weight on his back. The results are unbelievable. It "feels like magic." He could swear the load is floating. The machine hesitates briefly, and the heaviness stuns him. Just as quickly, he's struck by the dramatic weightlessness as it begins to work again. Harding, Kazerooni, and Angold begin to file patents and incorporate as Berkeley Bionics.
This early attempt eventually becomes the Human Universal Load Carrier, an untethered human exoskeleton that will allow soldiers to carry 200 pounds of equipment for hours. The company has licensed the product to Lockheed Martin, where it's undergoing development.
While Harding and his colleagues were busy developing the carrier, Kazerooni brought in some inquisitive physicians. They hoped to persuade the bionics team to consider another endeavor—helping paraplegics. The team watched a video depicting the myriad ways that paraplegics use braces to help them with mobility. Harding, transfixed by what he saw, thought, "Oh my God, we can do so much better than that."
Harding and the others got to work. They started with a large, modified military exoskeleton and, with eager anticipation, invited a paraplegic to try it out. The young man had great difficulty standing, nevermind walking. The machine wouldn't hold well to his body. "That was a tough day," says Harding. But not unlike those who worked on Joybus, Joyboat, and Joyboat II, he and the rest of the team addressed the problems and moved forward.
After a few years of "figuring it out," they were ready to test eLEGS. Although other exoskeletons existed, the company believed it had created a unique, practical device unlike anything on the market. Lightweight and wearable, the artificially intelligent machine can sense the user's movements with forearm crutches that trigger the legs to "walk," knees bent in a natural heel-toe gait.
Amanda Boxtel was brought in as one of the first "test pilots." Paralyzed from her hips down in a skiing accident in 1992, the effervescent woman has always prayed for a device that would one day allow her to walk. When she was asked whether she would like to help test a new machine, there was no hesitation in her response. It was a "pure dream." Within days, she was at the company, getting familiar with eLEGS, which she likened to learning a new sport. On the first day, she could stand, but only for about 10 minutes until the machine hesitated. Later that same day, she moved within parallel bars while the engineers triggered the controls. The promising start left her exhilarated for day two. On the second day, she used the forearm crutches, and says the experience was "indescribable." The first moment she actually walked on her own, she was unable to speak, overcome with emotion. "To be able to stand up in my 5'7" frame and feel my body walk in the natural way that I hadn't felt in years of paralysis—it was... !" she exclaims, too overwhelmed to finish the thought. Boxtel went back to her hotel room that night and wept.
Within days, she begged to go outside, off the tether, out of the lab. She knew the perfect spot, her favorite. There, at the marina, the company members watched her first steps, tearing up at the enormity of it all. They couldn't help but hug her afterwards, share her joy. To be completely free of the "blue line," able to determine her own direction—she says it was nothing less than a miracle. She stayed out about 30 minutes—not nearly enough for her. "Never enough," she says. "Going outside with the wind in your face and your hair—that's liberation. That's the vision—for someone who's confined to a wheelchair, to be able to walk freely in a standing-up world."
Others agree with the vision. Recent accolades include: Time magazine's Top 50 Innovations of 2010, CNN's #3 Top 10 Innovations of 2010, Wired magazine's #2 Most Significant Gadget of the Year. eLEGS is in limited release in select rehabilitation centers. It's expected to hit the home market in two years.
For Harding, eLEGS has been quite a journey. They all have been—the bikes, buses, and boats—each instructive and inspiring in its own way. This time, though, he's made it to "something a lot bigger than I had ever imagined."
Melissa Silmore (TPR'85) is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to this magazine.
TIME Magazine names eLEGS exoskeleton one of 50 best inventions of 2010
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Bionic Legs For Paraplegics? Want To Try It Out Yourself?
eLegs: From Wheelchair to Walking
Paraplegics Walking Again
Exoskeleton Helps the Paralyzed Walk Again