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The Incredible Bionic Man
Greg Nichols | Photo: John O’Regan, Brendan Smyth, Mark Pollock, Nick Wolfe, and Ekso Bionics | January 27, 2014
Mark Pollock grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Then he went blind. Then he became a world class adventure athlete. And then he was mysteriously paralyzed. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet.
It all started with a rowing scull. Mark Pollock, a skinny 11-year-old from a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland, was strolling down the hall during the second week of middle school, scanning the booths set up by ambassadors from the school’s clubs. Behind one booth, a long object sat perched in a wooden cradle. It was an aquatic bullet, all sex and shellac, from which all nonessential boatness had been stripped. It stopped Pollock in his tracks.
This was the late ’80s, and the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland. For Pollock, middle-class and ostensibly Protestant, the conflict played just offstage, a disquieting hum behind more pressing matters like girls and grades. His eyes were a bigger problem, the retinas prone to peeling off his eyeballs like cruddy wallpaper. Back when he was five years old, one of his retinas had detached, rendering him completely blind in his right eye. He had never been able to play football or rugby with his mates, though that was all he longed to do.
Pollock planted himself in front of the rowing booth, and eventually the coach told him to come by after school. The swimming pool was short, just long enough to take a couple of strokes with the oars, but Pollock shot across the surface, unzipping the water beneath him. “The oars felt like they were an extension of my body,” he remembers. “The boat was a part of me.”
From that moment, Pollock devoted himself to rowing. By the spring of 1998, when he walked out of the gym at Trinity College one day at age 22, his formerly sunken chest had ballooned outward. He was six feet tall and all muscle, an elite university rower in line for the Irish national team. It was the kind of day he loved—dry and crisp, the light so intense that it seemed to soften everything to a glow. But the blurred edges of his vision were a warning of impending disaster. When he realized that something was wrong, he rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery to pump gas into his “good” left eye, pressing the retina back into place.
Pollock awoke from surgery on April 10, 1998. The date gave him reason to be optimistic: Political factions in Northern Ireland had just signed the Good Friday Agreement, the greatest hope yet for lasting peace. He found that when he put his head down, the gas pushed his retina against the inside back wall of his eyeball and he could see. He stared at the floor, memorizing patterns in the laminate, hopeful that he would soon be back on his boat. But gradually the trick stopped working. He was going completely blind.
“I went into a consulting room,” Pollock recalls, “and the doctor said that he had tried all he could. Doctors don’t say you’ll never see again; they just say they can do no more. I was leaving the hospital with no more options.” The hulking college senior held on to his mother’s elbow as they returned to the waiting room. That’s when the impact of the news swept over him. “I got across the room and doubled over. I was walking out of the hospital with no sight, and that was the way it was going to be. I was crying, my mom was crying. A nurse got me a seat. I sat there and gathered my thoughts and strength. Then we left the hospital.”
Pollock returned to his mother’s house. He couldn’t finish school right away—he had no idea how to survive on his own in this new reality—and he felt an overwhelming sense of loss and a fear of being left behind. “People were graduating and going off to world championships in rowing, going off to travel around the world and work on yachts over the summer, to start new jobs and get on with their lives. I was sitting in the bedroom I had grown up in, unable to leave the house or look after myself.”
Pollock’s mother dedicated herself to finding help for her son. She brought in government service workers to teach him how to use a white stick to navigate his surroundings. She bought a talking watch, which let him distinguish between night and day. She didn’t coddle him, and she encouraged him not to feel sorry for himself. Progress was slow and grueling, but hope began to return.
“The big change came when I found out I could get in a computer course and learn to use a computer that talks to you,” Pollock says. “I figured if I could write a letter on a computer, I’d have a chance of getting a job. I didn’t consider rowing an option, or studying. I just wanted to get a job to earn money to go to the next stage of life like all my friends.”
Pollock threw himself into learning the talking computer. He arranged to make up his remaining schoolwork and finish his degree, and he was matched with a seeing-eye dog. Armed with his new skills, he moved back to Dublin, where he took a job coordinating events for an agrifood company and started a master’s program in business. In 2001, at age 25, he began training with an old rowing buddy from Trinity College. Together they launched a campaign to compete the following year in the Commonwealth Rowing Championships, a quadrennial event that features competitors from 10 countries and territories in the British Commonwealth. There is no blind category—Pollock competed with and against able-bodied athletes—but he made the Northern Ireland crew, which took silver in the eight-man race.
Achieving success in a boat made Pollock wonder what else he could accomplish. In 2003, on a dare, he tried the Gobi March—an insane six-stage footrace across one of the most inhospitable stretches of desert in the world. He finished the event, holding on to his teammate’s elbow for seven days. The challenge was invigorating, and soon he was casting about for new adventures. He completed the UVU North Pole Marathon, tripping over the undulating arctic ice so much that 60-year-old Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the world’s most famous living explorer, kicked his ass by almost two hours. “I’m always going to beat you on this type of terrain,” the arctic adventurer consoled him. Pollock had better luck in Ironman Zurich, and then the 48.7-kilometer Dead Sea Ultra Marathon, where he and his teammate finished in the top 30. In 2009, Pollock went land sailing in Argentina, screaming across the dry earth in a wind-powered buggy. In 2010, he raced a two-man yacht around Ireland, braving howling gales a hundred miles off the coast. The onboard electronics failed, leaving the vessel’s navigation system as blind as its crewman, but the boat loved the weather—it communicated to Pollock, pulsing through the cleated rigging. During moments like those, in touch with his equipment and confident in his abilities, he felt most alive.
Whenever he could, Pollock used his athletic endeavors to raise money for charities: Sightsavers International, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Royal National Institute for the Blind. He made money by giving motivational talks at conferences and corporate gatherings. In 2009, he finished the Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole Race, his most daring challenge yet. Over 22 days, he and two teammates skied 1,000 kilometers across the largest ice cap in the world while hauling their own sleds. Pollock faced temperatures as low as minus 58 degrees and elevations as high as 9,000 feet on his way to becoming the first blind man to reach the geographic South Pole. The irony of this feat was that it hardly mattered that Pollock was blind. When it’s life-threateningly cold, with whiteout snow swirling around you from above and below, the gift of sight is vestigial. You have to trust your equipment—the skis, the ropes pulling your sled.
It had been more than a decade since Pollock had lost his sight, years during which he had braved the harshest conditions on earth, built a name for himself as an adventure athlete, and raised tens of thousands of dollars for organizations doing outstanding work. Then, in the summer of 2010, tragedy struck for the second time. Pollock was in England to support friends racing in the Henley Royal Regatta. “I was staying with a friend. I had been out during the day and had gone back to the house. The next thing I remember is being in intensive care.”
Pollock had fallen 25 feet from an open window. No one saw it happen, and he has no memory of the event. Friends were nearby at the time, and they rushed to the garden where he’d landed, terrified by what they saw.
Nate Harding’s old mentor at UC Berkeley, Professor Kazerooni, had been working for years to build a practical robotic exoskeleton. The stumbling block had always been the power supply. The first untethered exoskeleton out of the Berkeley Robotics & Human Engineering Laboratory at UC Berkeley was called BLEEX. A YouTube video of the device in action shows a dazed test subject schlubbing around a sheet-draped room with a gigantic gas-powered lawnmower engine strapped to his back. He’s keeping it together admirably, but he doesn’t look comfortable.
BLEEX was a major breakthrough for Kazerooni—a wearable robotic device that could carry its own power—but the gas engine was bulky and too noisy for most applications. Kazerooni needed fresh ideas, so he began hiring consultants to work alongside his students. One of the people he called was Harding, who had been in the corporate world for about a decade. Kazerooni wanted his former pupil to find a way to make the power supply silent. “You needed a petroleum-type fuel because nothing else would have the energy density,” Harding recalls. “After I looked into it for a few months, I said, ‘That’s crazy. I don’t know what to tell you, but you can’t do it.’”
In 2004, Harding called the most talented engineer he’d ever worked with: Angold, whom he’d hired out of Cal Poly four years earlier to work at an industrial equipment company called Berkeley Process Control. “It was like Disneyland for engineers,” Angold recalls. Harding had quickly realized that Angold had a rare intuition, a phenomenal ability to see problems in ways that others couldn’t. The younger man joined Kazerooni and Harding in the lab at Berkeley, and before long he had reframed the question they had been trying to answer.
Early on, the target market for exoskeleton technology was the military, which has an obvious interest in extending normal human capabilities. Troops humping equipment over long distances might use a bionic suit to carry heavier loads, and futurists have long conjectured about the tactical applications of robot-assisted manpower. DARPA was funding Kazerooni’s research, which explains why the test schlub in the video is wearing camouflage. But when Angold played the same video for his brother, the former Navy SEAL, he was met with laughter. “He was like, ‘No way are we ever going to use gas-powered engines,’” Angold recalls. “He told me they were too big and too heavy for the military. It was a nonstarter.”
Angold pushed the team in a new direction. “All exoskeletons and a lot of robots to that point used a ton of power even when they weren’t moving,” he says. “They’re standing there consuming 2,000 watts. They’re fantastically expensive heaters at that point.” With the exoskeleton requiring power just to keep itself upright, a petroleum engine was the only viable option—batteries would die too quickly. But humans are much more efficient than BLEEX was engineered to be—when we stand still, we don’t expend much energy at all. So the team started looking at prosthesis technology, especially at unpowered artificial limbs. Says Angold: “It was ike, ‘Well, wait a minute. How are these people walking on unpowered knees while we feel we have to power all these degrees of freedom?’”
The team’s new goal was to build an exoskeleton that could support its own weight passively, without using any power. No single technological breakthrough led to their eventual success, but once they were asking the right question, the engineering goals suddenly became much more achievable. By eliminating power consumption except in cases of real work—taking a step, say—the team soon managed to drastically diminish the amount of power needed to operate prototypes. They replaced the petroleum engine with lighter rechargeable batteries and a solar panel, and soon they had a slimmed-down device that was whisper quiet and weighed about 30 pounds.
Kazerooni, Harding, and Angold formed a company in 2005 and introduced their new exoskeleton the same year. Still vying for military contracts, they named it the ExoHiker. “That made a lot of waves,” Harding says, “because essentially it took the state of the art from 5,000 watts to 5 watts.” The ExoHiker fit in a case that was about the size of an average end table.
Still, it would take an eye-opening accident and some outside intervention to get the team thinking about applying the technology to cases of spinal cord injury. In 2004, not long after Harding and Angold started working on exoskeletons, Angold’s brother broke his neck. The former SEAL eventually regained full mobility—“He can do, like, a million pull-ups,” Angold says—but the accident brought home to the team the devastating nature of spinal cord injuries. Two years later, a doctor sent the team a video of a patient trying to walk in a reciprocating gait orthosis, a contraption that allows paraplegics to take steps by heaving their torso from side to side. “We watched the video,” says Angold, “and the guy literally makes it 10 yards down the hallway, and he’s just exhausted. The doctor told us that that was the state of the art to help these guys walk again. And we were like, ‘Oh shit, we can do better than that.’”