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Saturday, May 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Project has him walking on air

Seattle Times staff reporter

A high-tech human exoskeleton powered by compressed air that could one day enable quadriplegics to walk.

Sounds like something from science fiction? Well, it is.

University of Washington junior Monty Reed demonstrated his prototype Lifesuit exoskeleton Friday. His was one of 541 undergraduate projects at an end-of-year UW symposium designed to trumpet the range of research going on at the institution. After Reed, 41, broke his back in a parachute accident 20 years ago, he lay in a hospital bed and read about human exoskeletons in Robert Heinlein's science-fiction novel "Starship Troopers." It became his inspiration.

"It was so well-written that I could imagine building the thing," said Reed, who's studying biosynthetics. "I just added a computer."

Reed's accident occurred when he was in the Army airborne rangers taking a training jump at night in Europe. Another soldier was too close in the air and Reed's parachute collapsed. Doctors told him he might never walk again, but he has since regained most of the movement and feeling in his legs and arms. That hasn't diminished his interest in the exoskeleton project he began as a hobby in 2001.

He's on his 14th prototype and recently received a Mary Gates Scholarship for research. The exoskeleton is a body-length metal frame with a tank of compressed air on the back. Reed said the suit has advantages over a wheelchair in that one day it could allow paralyzed people or amputees to traverse stairs and other uneven terrain.

Users can interact with others at eye level and stretch their leg muscles, preventing them from atrophying, Reed said. One tank of air can power the suit for a mile, he added.

Reed has completed two St. Patrick's Day Dash runs in his suits. But the latest prototype is not ready for real-world use, explained associate professor Steven Stiens, who is Reed's mentor and a wheelchair-user himself.

"It's a very exciting demonstration project," Stiens said. "It would need to go through research and trial by various disabled groups. They would need to test the practicality of the device, to see how easy it is to get in and out of."

Other projects on display Friday ranged from an examination of the science and poetry in bird song to assessing the effect of male circumcision on the spread of AIDS.

Seniors Brandon Hawkins, 20, and Adam Thorne, 22, compared historical annual increases in U.S. defense spending with the amount of time each U.S. president dedicated to talking about defense in each State of the Union address. There appeared to be a strong correlation — leading the students to conclude that the president is able to set the agenda on defense spending.

Junior Thomas Chung, meanwhile, looked at the Starbucks coffee-drinking experience as a metaphor for unconscious human social behavior. He said that some people identify so strongly with Starbucks that they define themselves by what they drink.

Chung acknowledged he'd imbibed many cups of coffee during his research.

"I stopped counting after 20," he said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published May 20, was corrected July 11. A previous version of this story incorrectly said University of Washington junior Monty Reed, who has developed a prototype walking machine for quadriplegics, was injured in a parachute accident 10 years ago. He was injured 20 years ago.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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