When Austin Whitney, 22, walked across the stage to receive his degree from the University of California-Berkeley (UCB), thousands of students cheered and clapped because the steps he took were extraordinary - Whitney is a paraplegic student and the walk from his wheelchair to the was made possible with the help of a bionic exoskeleton engineered by a university professor and fellow graduate students.
Austin Whitney was one of the 2,100 seniors who received their degrees on Saturday. But he is different - Whitney is paralyzed waist downwards but with the help of bionic exoskeleton legs he could get up from his wheelchair and walk across the stage to receive a hug and the degree from the university's chancellor on Saturday, May 14.
A 2007 car crash severed Whitney's spinal chord and almost killed his friend. Whitney was in hospital for several weeks after the accident and realized that he could never walk again. However, instead of being filled with self-remorse or being consumed by self-hatred, Whitney decided to pursue his academic dreams and aspirations. The straight-As student decided to go to University of California-Berkeley for his sophomore year and it was possibly the best decision he made in his life because it was at the university that he met mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni, who invented the robotic legs that helped him walk amid cheers on Saturday.
Kazerooni is no stranger to bionic exoskeleton frames as he and his team had been developing them for over a decade. The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and was originally meant to help soldiers and medics lug heavy packs on the battlefield. Berkeley Bionics, a company Kazerooni co-founded in 2005, makes bionic exoskeletons for rehabilitation clinics.
According to Kazerooni, bionic exoskeletons have their limitations despite advancements in computer chips and development of more powerful batteries.
For instance, the bionic exoskeleton Whitney uses won't help him to walk backward or climb ladders.
But what we sacrifice in capability, we gain in accessibility and affordability, USA Today quoted Kazerooni as saying. Just getting people to be upright and take steps forward is already a huge advance in increasing independence.
Kazerooni said the bionic exoskeleton used by Whitney on Saturday - lightweight robotic leg-brace supports and a slim box-like control apparatus strapped to the back of the user - would be called Austin and would retail for $15,000 or similar to the price of a high-end motorized wheelchair. Higher-end robotic legs would cost around $90,000.
Many UC Berkeley students have described the event as surreal and have compared the achievement to donning an Iron Man suit.
Watch the video to witness the triumph of Whitney's spirit: