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Alumnus Helps Build Cyborg Walking Machine

Mechanical engineering alumnus Michael McKinley, now a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, was on a team of engineers that built a machine enabling a paraplegic senior to rise from his wheelchair and stride across the commencement stage for graduation. The story was told in a long and beautifully written feature carried by Popular Science Magazine. “Austin Whitney didn’t want to graduate from college in a wheelchair,” as the story began. “So he and the student engineers at U.C. Berkeley’s ‘Kaz Lab’ built a machine that allowed him to stand up and walk across the commencement stage.” As McKinley characterized the event in the story, “This in many ways is like a moon launch.”

The beginning of the story, crafted by James Vlahos, starts this way.

Seven steps. A short, straight walk across a stage backed by blue and gold balloons, lit by camera flashes, and ringing with the cheers of 15,000 people in the track stadium at the University of California at Berkeley. For most of the class of 2011, traipsing across the carpeted commencement platform is a triumphal but essentially symbolic exercise. You don’t even get your diploma, just a rolled-up note saying that one will be mailed. But for Austin Whitney, who comes last this year, the walk itself will be a major achievement.

Whitney is a paraplegic. For the past four years, he has been bound to a wheelchair, unable to walk. Then he got a call from Homayoon Kazerooni, the director of Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. Kazerooni creates robotic exoskeletons, motorpowered devices worn by users to add mechanical might to the movements of muscle and bone. The U.S. military funds most exoskeleton research, with the goal of one day creating a super-soldier, a bionic man who can punch through brick walls or carry 200-pound loads all day long. Kazerooni has built exoskeletons that are now being tested by the Army, but when he contacted Whitney in August 2010, he had other users in mind. He was looking for a research subject to help his students develop an exoskeleton that didn’t give its wearer a superpower but rather a much more basic one: the ability to walk.

On the stage, Whitney’s mortarboard tassel drops in front of his eyes and he flips it aside with a shake of his head. Lurking a few feet behind him in dark glasses and black sport coats are Michael McKinley, Jason Reid and Wayne Tung, graduate students in Kazerooni’s lab. Waiting offstage is another graduate student, Minerva Pillai, and the lab manager, Arun Joshua Cherian. Whitney is about to demonstrate their invention in public for the first time, and the exoskeleton has been bedeviled with technical glitches that persisted until moments before he wheeled himself onstage.

Read the rest of the Popular Science Article. (April 2012)