Glee’s Walking Machine: Fact and Fiction

As a loyal devotee of Glee, I was stunned to see the the ReWalk exoskeleton featured in last night’s climactic scene. I won’t get into the plot details, but basically the ReWalk functions as a Christmas miracle, letting Artie walk again, albeit in a limited way.

Even more surprising than the inclusion of this rather arcane technology is the fact that the show’s description of if was entirely accurate. (This is, after all, a rather fantastical show.) They got the name right, and the fact that it’s been developed in Israel. And, true to life, the machine doesn’t let Artie just hop around. In order to use it, he has to press an arm-mounted keypad, and then take tentative steps one at a time. But by golly, he’s actually up and moving!

The most unrealistic aspect of the presentation was that, a) you can’t just buy a ReWalk yet; to use one you’d need to be enrolled in a clinical trial, of which there’s only one in the US, near Philadelphia b) it takes a fair bit of training to master.

UPDATE: With just a few days of shopping left before Christmas, word comes that ReWalk has been approved for sale by the FDA. Not for home use, as seen in Glee, but for use by patients in clinics and hospitals. “The ReWalk system will be available for sale as of January, for institutional use only,” says Heather Newcomb, Director of Communications at the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network near Philadelpha. “The cost will be around $85,000.” So even though no one will be finding one under their Christmas tree, a lot more people with spinal-cord injury will have a chance to ambulate again.

Here’s some video I took in January of one of the patients in the clinical trial, a man named Floyd Morrow:

And here’s a link to the story I wrote in Parade.

Breaking the Oldest Land-Speed Record

Looks fast, right? It isn’t.

A few weeks ago Popular Mechanics posted my article about the British Steam Car Challenge and how they managed to break (barely) a record that dates back (if you squint at it the right way) to 1906. The full story is here, but today I wanted to take the opportunity to post some video from my time out in the desert with the team, so that interested readers can get a sense of what this thing looks like in action. In the video, it seems like it’s scorching, but the official speed on this run was only 127 mph.

They managed to up that figure later, but as one astute PM commenter observed, “3 Megawatts is equivalent to 4,000 horsepower, and they only got 150 mph? Something is very wrong with their design.”

The Exact Opposite of a Prius

Here’s another video from last Saturday night in Morocco, Indiana. Al Zukakas of Chicago takes his “Hot Blade” jet dragster to 269 mph in the quarter mile. The speed is impressive, but what really gets the crowd going is the sheer power of the sound, heat, and flame coming out of that big turbine. You can feel the thumping in your bones.

Unsafe At Any Speed

A late night last night. I was on assignment for Popular Mechanics, covering the debut of Paul Stender’s latest jet-powered contraption. Paul is best known as the guy who invented the jet-powered outhouse and the jet-powered schoolbus, but he’s done quite a few other vehicles as well — in fact, every winter he tends to brew up at least one new example of vehicular insanity in his Brownsville, IN, workshop in preparation for the upcoming drag-race and airshow season. Seen here is the “Urban Legend,” a ’67 Impala that’s been outfitted with a jet engine on its roof that Paul estimates will boost the car’s top speed from about 130 to about 250 mph. Note that he doesn’t achieve anything like that in this clip; the car, still a work in progress, suffered some major problems with the afterburner. Hopefully Paul will get the kinks worked out and will return to Morocco in September for a full-power run that hopefully the chest-pounding noise and fire of a full jet-car experience. I’ll be writing about the project in more detail in an upcoming issue of Popular Mechanics.

I Feel Like I’m Floating on Air

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzRLKzq0S8I&feature=player_embedded]

Last week I got a lesson in piloting a C-Quester submarine in Aruba, a thrilling experience. I was struck by how similar it feels to flying a Zeppelin, which I wrote about for the July issue of Popular Mechanics. In both cases, you’re zooming along in a horizontal plane, while trying to maintain your altitude (or depth) by countering buoyancy effects with vertical thrusters. In both cases, you have to anticipate your correction well before it takes effect — there’s a huge lag time.

And in both cases, you’re bound to have a thrill of a lifetime. If you have a chance to try either one, I’d strongly suggest you take it.

iPhone vs Earthquakes

Another day, another major earthquake — this time, a magnitude 6.9 tremblor that killed at least 300 people in China’s Qinghai province. I’ve been talking to a lot of seismologists lately, and they all agree that the recent cluster of devastating earthquakes, including the jolt that shook northern Mexico earlier this month, do not point to some planet-wide upheaval; it’s all a statistical coincidence, they say. Well, that may be true, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. It feels like something is up. Not surprising, then, that a few days ago false rumors started proliferating in Southern California that the Big One would strike imminently.

Seismologists’ reassurances would be more soothing if they had a detailed, empirically verified understanding of how earthquakes work. Unfortunately, they’re the result of forces at work deep within the earth that are difficult to gather data on. So the science remains in its early stages. But progress is being made — and soon, you can be a part of the process. As I wrote recently on the Pop Mech website:

As part of their battle to understand and protect against the destructive force of earthquakes, seismologists have gone to extraordinary lengths. They have bored holes deep into the earth’s crust, laid out arrays of sensors hundreds of miles across, and built supercomputers capable of running simulations at teraflop speeds. But the most exciting new effort in cutting-edge seismology involves a piece of instrumentation that’s a good deal less exotic. It’s called an iPhone. Continue reading iPhone vs Earthquakes

Can Animals Detect Earthquakes?

Over at the always-excellent Discover magazine blog 80 Beats, a fascinating post from a couple of days ago on a topic that has fascinated natural historians for several thousand years now: can animals’ strange behavior provide forewarning that an earthquake is about to strike?

I’ve been reporting a story about earthquake prediction for Parade magazine lately, and spent a day talking with some of the nation’s leading seismologists at Caltech. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the difficulty of the scientists working toward that holy grail of earthquake research, figuring out how to predict the behavior of faults that lie invisible deep beneath the surface of the earth (and which may be fundamentally chaotic in their nature anyway).

All the more intriguing, then, to hear that biologist Rachel Grant, while studying the mating behavior of toads in Italy, may have stumbled upon the first scientific evidence of animals being able to foresee what seismologists could not:

Her team was studying common toads in Italy in April 2009 when the amphibians began to disappear from the study site. This didn’t make much sense to her, the toads abandoning a breeding site in the midst of breeding season. So the researchers tracked them. They found that 96 percent of males — who vastly outnumber females at breeding spots — abandoned the site, 46 miles (74 kilometers) from the quake’s epicenter, five days before it struck on April 6, 2009. The number of toads at the site fell to zero three days before the quake. Grant says her initial reaction to the mass toad dispersal was annoyance—their flight was holding up her research. However, when they began to return the day after the earthquake, things began to make more sense.

It’s an amazing story, a seemingly irrefutable case of cause and effect. But I’m still not buying it. Here’s why. Continue reading Can Animals Detect Earthquakes?

Restoring The Power To Walk — With Exoskeletons

On Labor Day 2008, Ed Schuyler dove off a dock on Pennsylvania’s Van Sciver Lake, something he’s done hundreds of times over the years. He’d thrown a stick to his niece’s dog and sprinted after it to the dock. Arms outstretched, he dove into the water—but on his plunge downward, his head struck the bottom of the lake.

Although the 43-year-old rose to the surface just as he always did, he noticed something was wrong with his body. “There was no pain, but I couldn’t move my legs,” he says. “I kept myself up with only my arms, and I started panicking. I thought I was going to drown.”

Though he didn’t realize it yet, Schuyler had broken his neck. He’ll be paralyzed for life. But thanks to new exoskeleton technology, he’s learning to walk again, as I learned while reporting a story out this weekend in Parade magazine. Read the rest here.

UPDATE: On the occasion of the ReWalk’s appearance on Glee, I’ve posted some of my own video.