Mechanical Marvel

Technology developed by IHMC is helping one man move forward—in the most meaningful of ways.

A traumatic accident would unknowingly transform Mark Daniel’s life—and make him an agent of change for future generations.

Born and raised in Pensacola, Daniel’s self-confidence and awareness were developed early in life as he spent much of his youth on dirt bikes and four-wheelers, alone in the woods, where the margin for making mistakes could prove costly and instilled in him a sense of discipline and toughness. He also developed a strong work ethic from his hardworking blue-collar family members, which later would help him overcome the major adversities he would face.

“My dad’s a plumber, my uncles are tradesmen, my grandfather’s a machinist and my mom worked in a warehouse,” Daniel offers proudly, adding that he’s always loved mechanics and working with engines.

By the time he was 18 years old, Daniel had graduated from high school and trade school. He possessed all the qualifications he needed for his vocation as a welder and fabricator, and was embracing his future with enthusiasm.

“I started with industrial work…you have a lot to prove when you come onto a job site; a lot of it is the hardest work that’s out there and the longest hours,” explains Daniel, who was in peak physical condition at the time, running up to 10 miles a day.

Initially, Daniel was just driving a truck and delivering materials to job sites, but just two months later he realized his dream, welding for fabrication work for a shop in town. The days were long, with 10 hours on the job plus driving an hour to the site from his home and another hour back. He was working six days a week, but the workload increased to where he was plying his trade every day. The demanding schedule included overtime. For about five months after his 18th birthday, Daniel averaged working about 80 hours a week. The demands eventually came with a steep price. The week of his accident, Daniel had worked 93 hours over eight straight days.

“I got off from work on a Friday night, I think it was about 7 o’clock, and I stopped by a friend’s house on the way home,” Daniel recalls. “I fell asleep on his couch for a couple of hours and I woke up in a way that I call ‘waking up on my feet.’ You fall asleep in a sitting position and by the time you open your eyes, you’re already on your feet because you’re kind of scared as to where you are. I woke up wide awake like that.”

Daniel felt the need to go home. He got in his truck and began what he thought would be a routine drive—but, tragically, it turned into a crash that left him paralyzed.

“I was about two miles from the house when I fell asleep and I drifted off the road,” he says. “The accident report reads that I hit a few mailboxes (which startled him awake). I overcorrected, turning left, which made my SUV flip seven times and it eventually landed on its roof. Somewhere in the middle, I was ejected out the passenger door.”

Daniel sustained a T-10 thoracic injury, also known as a burst fracture. He had six broken ribs on his right side, a collapsed right lung, a bruised right kidney and bruised liver, and the internal organs on the right side of his body were all compromised.

“I ended up dying on the helicopter ride from the accident scene to the hospital, and then again three days later,” Daniel states. “Monday morning, when they brought me into surgery, sometime during the 12- to 14-hour surgery, my right lung collapsed and I coded.”

The road forward for Daniel called for him to draw on the resiliency and toughness he had developed early in life.

For the first three years after the crash, he was in a wheelchair and the focus was on rehabilitation and the basics. His drive to move forward and upper body strength put him in good stead and he kept in close contact with his physical therapist during the process. But he found himself asking of the equipment and processes, “Why, after 3,000 years, are they still using the same technology?”

Enter the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), which is headquartered in Pensacola and has a campus in Ocala. IHMC researchers were looking for people in wheelchairs who would be capable of participating in their exoskeleton project. A connection was made between Research Scientist Peter Neuhaus, the original team leader of the project at IHMC, and Daniel through the hospital’s physical therapy department.

“When Peter and the others came to me asking me about this project, I saw the next step,” Daniel remembers, “I had already been wondering for three years as to why no one had thought about doing this, and so I took the opportunity.”

The Journey Begins

There was no question Daniel was the right candidate to be the pilot for the exoskeleton project, but there was still much to consider as the team worked diligently to see if they could indeed make a paralyzed person walk.

The first device Daniel worked with was the Mina v1 exoskeleton. That first version was followed by the NASA-IHMC X1 exoskeleton, which IHMC designed jointly with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to be a robotic device for a range of applications including mobility assistance for abled and disabled users, rehabilitation, and exercise. Then came Mina v2, which was specifically developed for the 2016 Cybathlon, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s international, multi-sport competition in which people with physical disabilities compete against each other to complete everyday tasks using state-of-the-art technical assistance systems.

The Mina v2 was designed to allow users to stand up and walk through a variety of environments, up and down stairs and ramps, as well as across flat and bumpy terrain and was powered by an electric bicycle battery.

“Safety was a concern. They were making sure my joints were in the right position, so the basics of safety and proper alignment were in place,” Daniel notes. “But initially the big concern was, ‘Could we make Mark walk?’ And, clumsily, with a lot of upper body effort, we were able to.”

Leading The Way

The team at IHMC felt confident that if they could fit the device well to Daniel’s body, he would be able to move and be able to use his upper body strength to manipulate the device and its mechanical motion.

Aside from the competition element, the Cybathlon also offered a platform to advance research on assistance systems for everyday use and promote a dialogue with the public. The championship gives people with disabilities the opportunity to use advanced assistive devices to complete six common tasks: sitting down on a sofa and standing up; walking a slalom course; walking up a steep ramp, opening a door and walking through it, and walking down a steep ramp; walking over stepping stones; walking on tilted surfaces; and walking up and down stairs.

The lessons learned from that experience served as a powerful resource for the team at IHMC as they approached last year’s 2020 Cybathlon Exoskeleton Race. Because of the pandemic, this competition differed greatly from the inaugural 2016, in which the IHMC team competed in person in Zurich and placed second overall. The 2020 edition of the race was done virtually but was no less competitive, as IHMC found themselves up against 51 teams from 20 countries, with the course and obstacles set up at the organization’s Pensacola campus.

But that was not all that changed. The Quix device replaced Mina v2 as the next evolution of the exoskeleton. From there, Daniel says that there wasn’t as much testing, but further refinement of the actual fit to his body.

“It was how do we get the fit better?” he recalls. “How do we make the cuffs better, the alignment better and all of those systems? How can we make the device do as much of the work as possible, even if that slows us down a little bit and makes us more stable and safer? And then [we worked on] enclosing all of the wiring and motors for safety purposes.”

The Quix device was used in both the 2020 Cybathlon Powered Exoskeleton Race, in which IHMC ranked fourth, and also in December’s Toyota Mobility Foundation’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge, in which IHMC placed in the top five.

This newest model is powered by two 6S lithium polymer batteries contained in a backpack, which provide operating time upwards of one hour of heavy usage, according to IHMC Research Scientist Robert Griffin, who wrote a lot of the control code that runs the exoskeleton.

The team’s commitment was extraordinary given that an undertaking like this has its fair share of challenges, Griffin offered. “There were a lot of long late nights and weekends, and it wasn’t a question of people putting in the time, it was if they were working too hard.”

The opportunity to see the progress unfold and to succeed was a source of pride for the team, Griffin adds. Before the Cybathlon started, Griffin emphasized to the team members that it was a victory that they had made it to the competition and showing up with a device that worked was an achievement in itself.

Having someone who had the physical wherewithal, the self-confidence and the trust in the team’s effort made the project and process easier, notes Research Associate Brandon Peterson, the software and controls lead for IHMC’s exoskeleton team.

Peterson had arrived at the end of the project involving the Mina v2. The team then became focused on how they could improve some of the safety and sensing capabilities of the new exoskeleton, the Quix device. Peterson’s role on both the Mina v2 and Quix was to provide Daniel with a better sense of what the device was doing, so he would be able to increase capabilities such as walking speed. Peterson would get into the exoskeleton, walk around and make sure it felt comfortable enough for Daniel to use. Daniel’s feedback on the projects has been critical because his experiences with using the device are far different from those of an able-bodied person.

“Mark was the ideal pilot to have for a project like this,” says Peterson. “We’re extremely lucky to have him as our pilot, not only because of his upper body strength to help with balancing and tasks like that, but his willingness to strap himself to this device that this small group of engineers has developed. It’s huge. You can’t expect anybody in his position to be so willing to come in every day and walk around in this robot that a few of us built, so that was extremely key.”

Over time the makeup of the research team has changed markedly. However, the current team came together to advance the project, with Vishnu Aishwaryan Subra Mani, who began 2020 as an intern, graduating to the role of lead mechanical engineer. Mani tested and redesigned essential elements from sensors to the ventilation system and designed the crutch interface for Daniel to use the exoskeleton based on his needs.

Rounding out the team is Research Associate Carlos Gonzalez, who joined the project last September. While the device was developed by that time, he played a role in helping with the testing, ensuring that Daniel was in a safe position and communicating to the team if something felt out of place.

The Next Step Forward

Innovative projects like Quix can make a big impact, not just for people with spinal cord injuries, but for workers who carry or manipulate heavy loads, Griffin reveals.

“The stress on the human body can limit the working lifespan of the person doing that labor,” he explains. “With an aging workforce, what we’re hoping for is that after five years, workers don’t have that same wear and tear. This is technology that only protects the outside of the body, but wearable technology can also protect the inside.”

For Daniel, who’s deeply committed to the idea of equality, believing any bodied person should be capable of doing what another is able to do, the exoskeleton has provided him with a sense of freedom. It’s his hope that people will embrace the ideology that they too can strive for similar milestones and objectives.

“It’s not a matter of can we do things as much as how can we accomplish them,” offers Daniel, who found not only hope at IHMC, but a career as an IHMC research associate and exoskeleton pilot.  “For me, all these programs and what we’re doing is hopefully giving somebody the perspective on what they can accomplish. They see what we’re doing, and maybe they can. Maybe they don’t see themselves doing the exoskeleton, but by seeing me do something they’ll be able to find a way…or be encouraged or figure out a way to do it themselves.”

The opportunity to take part in this life-transforming IHMC project provided Daniel with a way forward, one that’s consistent with his optimistic nature. Now, he says, the project, fueled in part by his pioneering spirit and trailblazing participation, is playing a role in creating a better quality of life for future generations.

“The exoskeleton and being able to walk again is pretty much every spinal cord patient’s dream,” explains Daniel. “Being able to get back to normal is a want for most people in my position. And to be able to do it, to be a part of the project, and have people encouraging me…I am proud of that. But not necessarily in the sense of [being proud of] myself and what I’ve accomplished. I’m really proud to be a part of such an ever-evolving team. This project, and others like it across the world, is really the foundation of how we’re going to solve this problem.”

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