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Monty's Lifesuit: Science Fiction to Fact

Jeremy Richards

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Monty's robot
(Cecelia Lehmann)
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This weekend, San Francisco hosts the 2008 RoboGames. Last year's event attracted more than 3,000 spectators -- they came to see robots and their human inventors compete in races, weightlifting and all-out robo-smackdowns.

Lifesuit prototype 14 in action
(Cecilia Lehman)

But one returning champion from Seattle has a bigger mission in mind. Reporter Jeremy Richards has the story:

Like any good superhero story, Monty Reed's journey starts with a single terrifying event. In 1983, fresh out of high school, Monty joined the Army, eventually securing a place with the elite Airborne Rangers. He had 38 successful jumps. But something went wrong on his 39th jump.

"We were doing a night jump," Reed says. "It was battalion-wide, so it was hundreds of parachutes in the air, and somebody's parachute came too close to me, and that stole the air. So my canopy collapsed, and I hit the ground."

On impact, Monty broke his back in several places. He spent a year recovering at a hospital in Ford Ord, Calif.

"While I was in the hospital, paralyzed legs, fingers on both hands paralyzed, the doctors told me your condition is permanent and it will get worse. So get used to it."

Monty didn't accept this. He took out a pad of paper and wrote across the top: "Monty Shall Walk." To distract himself from the pain, he found solace in science-fiction novels. That's when inspiration hit:

"While I was in the hospital I read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. And I got so excited about this suit that he described -- a mechanized, powered armor that allowed the soldiers to carry 2,000 pounds of equipment. And I thought if I could build a scaled-down version that could just carry 170 pounds of me, then I would be set and I could walk again."

It turns out the doctor's prognosis was wrong. Monty had a miraculous recovery and started walking again within a month. But it would take almost 10 years of rehabilitation before he was fully functional. And even today, 25 years after his accident, Monty sometimes has trouble walking or one of his arms will give out.

Living with this pain, Monty was still determined to build a robotic "lifesuit" to help others. In the hospital bed, he took out that paper again, crossed out his name and wrote "They Shall Walk." The only catch was that Monty had no idea how he was going to accomplish this. He had no experience in medicine or engineering.

If I were writing a screenplay about Monty's life, here's where I'd insert the montage: Monty reading stacks of medical journals. Monty taking classes at North Seattle Community College and the University of Washington. Monty slowly building up his own mobility and spending long hours tinkering with early prototypes of his "lifesuit" robot.

Cut to June 2008: Monty and a team of volunteer engineers and outreach coordinators gather in the basement of an abandoned Kung Fu studio beneath a 99 Cent Store. Here, in north Seattle, they have just enough room for a couple of computers, boxes of second-hand medical journals, and a few projects that look like aerobics machines hooked up to tubes and wires.

Though it doesn't look like much now, Monty's fully assembled machines took home a few medals at last year's RoboGames. He shows me the upper-body exoskeleton that allows the wearer to lift 205 pounds. Last year, they took home a gold medal for weightlifting and a timed walking competition.

"It's sort of our NASCAR event," he says. "It's just a competition for us. The lifesuit's not designed for a paralyzed person to go and compete in weightlifting. But what we're doing is pushing the limits of the suit so that we can demonstrate just how much we can do with it."

Meanwhile, Monty turns to medical professionals like Dr. Steven Stiens to help with the clinical applications of the technology. Dr. Stiens is an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Washington, one of the staff physicians at the Veteran's Administration. With a few more improvements, according to Dr. Steins, these walking robots may be able to really help people -- people like him.

"Well, you know I'm sitting here in a wheelchair and paralyzed," he says. "And I walked with long leg braces for years. Monty heard that I had an interest in weight-support ambulation and bracing, and he described to me what he wanted to build: a lifesuit."

Back in the lab, Monty fires up lifesuit prototype 14: a makeshift exoskeleton with a backpack harness, a scuba tank of compressed air and two pneumatic systems. These systems that attach to cylinders that act like muscles to extend the ankle, knee, and hip joints.

"We have a clamshell for holding the lower part of the leg in place," says Monty. "We could have spent $2,500 for custom molding and design, but it felt better just to grab a hockey shin guard and strap it on with Velcro."

Monty steadies his balance, then takes slow mechanical steps "One step forward, another step forward, another step forward," says Dr. Stiens as Monty lumbers ahead and shuffles side to side. "So what he's doing is he's passively releasing the air as he flexes at the hips and knees, and then when he powers up, all of the cylinders raise his center of gravity."

It may not be glamorous, but it's pretty cool. They hope to get enough funding to perfect the lifesuits and get them in hospitals by 2010 and ready for home use by 2015.

"In the future -- and keep in mind the future, because this is based on science fiction where we take the "fiction" out -- is nanotech biosynthetic muscle fibers that will weave into a suit you can wear under your clothes. That will lift you up and it will be unnoticeable to the untrained eye, and I expect it will be outlawed at sporting events, too."

The group hopes to take home a few more gold medals at the RoboGames this weekend. But the event is really just another step toward testing and perfecting their rehabilitation technology -- one step, another step -- as far as they can go.


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    By Girija Nookala

    From Vizag,INDIA, 01/11/2009

    The story of Monty Reed is very intersting ,inspiring,and ofcourse a glimmer of HOPE for the disabled of various kinds.I truly visualise people wearing life suits under their dresses as naturally as eye glasses to help their muscles accoding to its need and nothing about their disability.Incidentally Iam suffering from L.G.M.D amuscle dystrophy.Like participate in trials to be conducted in Vellore Hospital in INDIA.

    By Len Shulman

    From Irvine, CA, 06/14/2008

    Please send an address for
    Monty Reed.

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