Kiwis launch bionic legs

Last updated 16:02 15/07/2010
Hamish Coleman-Ross

Auckland company REX bionics today unveiled a world first robotic development, a frame to assist paraplegics with walking.

AND HE'S AWAY: Hayden Allen in the Robotic Exoskeleton (Rex) at the launch in Auckland. Hayden received spinal cord injuries five years ago and is wheelchair-bound.

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Hayden Allen, who has been in a wheelchair for five years after a motorcycle accident, always knew he would walk again. He just didn't think it would be with the aid of robotics.

Hayden, 23, became one of the first people in the world to stand up and walk using robotic legs built by New Zealand company Rex Bionics.

After seven years of secret development and and $10 million of investment the high-tech unit was unveiled in Auckland today.

Rex, which stands for robotic exoskeleton, is the brainchild of long-time friends Richard Little - now the company's chief technology officer - and Robert Irving who were at school together in Fort William, Scotland,  30 years ago.

Irving has multiple sclerosis and both of their mothers are in wheelchairs.

The project has been funded by venture capital company No 8 Ventures - the company also behind The Martin Jetpack.

No 8's managing partner Jenny Morel is also chief executive of Rex Robotics. Morel said the anticipated cost of a Rex unit would be US$150,000 abroad and about $150,000 locally.

The unit weighs 38kg and is operated by a joystick. It enables a wheelchair user to stand, walk and go up and down steps and slopes. Director Paul Dyson said the technology was unique and he expected sales to go from single digits per month, to dozens each month next year.

Sales start in New Zealand toward the year end and worldwide by mid-2011.

''There will come a time when we will be able to produce them in the dozens and dozens per month,'' he said.

Mr Allen, who is clearly overjoyed with Rex, gave a live demonstration before many wheelchair-bound guests as well as a large media pack and the Prime Minister John Key.

He still rides motorcycles and works on cars in his workshop.

''I knew deep down one day I'd stand back up. I'll never forget what it was like to see my feet walking under me for the first time I used Rex.''

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