The year 2015 has been good for the field of exoskeletons and wearable robotics. New companies that specialize in medical and able-bodied exoskeletons have become more confident in sharing the products they are developing with the general public. All of the older exoskeleton companies have been successful in securing funding throughout the year and have demonstrated progress. More of the already available exoskeletons have gained recognition by private and government agencies paving the way for device propagation. Below is an outline of the exoskeletons and wearable robotics areas with major developments in 2015:
- mobile rehabilitation exoskeletons
- stationary rehabilitation exoskeletons
- medical-augmentation (power gloves)
- government classifications
- tool holding exoskeletons
- lift assist exoskeletons
- passive chairs
- DIY (Do It Yourself) Exoskeletons
- New Materials and Approaches
Medical Exoskeletons and Wearable Robotics in 2015
The biggest development in rehabilitation exoskeletons has been the sheer number of companies that have started to make their projects public. There are over a dozen small companies that have been founded over the past five years that have now reached prototype stage. Most of these new entities have decided to go it alone, while others are partnering with larger companies. For example, B-Temia worked with Revision Military to create a unified military exoskeleton package and Bionic Laboratories worked with IBM on better data management acquired from their exoskeleton. In addition, EU research projects that have come to their scheduled end have provided fuel for new commercial companies which are now becoming more active. The newfound publicity from making their work public has been helpful in securing funding for most of these relative novices to the exoskeleton field.
While all of the new companies were picking up speed, it was the old veterans in the field: ReWalk Robotics and CYBERDYNE that shined the brightest in 2015 (Ekso Bionics which would traditionally be in the list of medical companies, shifted a lot of its focus to military and industrial exoskeletons in 2015). All of the medical exoskeleton manufacturers have been fighting to justify the cost of their devices to both government and public agencies for years. In February, the FDA classified exoskeletons as Class II devices which was not what a lot of people were hoping for but it showed that the US government was starting to take the industry more seriously. In November, making good on their promise to cut down on government bureaucracy for robotic devices the Japanese government approved CYBERDYNE’s HAL as a medical device, opening the door for it to be covered by private and public insurance plans. In December, ReWalk Robotics was the first company to achieve government coverage when the US Department of Veterans Affairs announced it will cover the cost of the initial purchase of the ReWalk exoskeleton for qualified veterans (skyrocketing the company stock). This was the single most covered exoskeleton announcement by the media in 2015. The VA policy opens the door for massive exoskeleton proliferation that the likes of which have never been seen before.
While mobile medical exoskeletons had a great year, stationary rehabilitation exoskeletons did not generate much media buzz. These are rehabilitation exoskeletons that do not move independently. Instead, they are bolted to a supporting structure and the user walks on a treadmill or the exoskeleton is held by a robot or another attachment. This makes the exoskeletons much easier to design, as the weight of the device is accounted for and is not transferred onto the user. Demand for these devices was at least steady or increasing, but because they don’t move around they are not as exciting to cover by the news outlets. Dedicated rehabilitation facilities are the primary point of sale, but some locations have started tethering their mobile exoskeletons on overhead railing, creating a “best of both worlds” hybrid.
New companies with new products also means new ideas. The strongest new trend in medical exoskeletons in 2015 was small, specialized exoskeletons. Contrary to the traditional, hard framed electrically powered mobile exoskeletons that provide assistance for people with disabilities companies have started developing small, light weight soft devices that provide power only were needed. Most popular applications include powered knee and elbow braces and soft powered gloves for people with insufficient muscle strength in those areas. The Daiya Industry Pneumatic Power Assist Glove is a great example of a small, focused, commercial exoskeleton. Expect to see a lot more of these types of devices in 2016!
Industrial Exoskeletons in 2015
Last year put the exoskeletons designed to be used in an industrial setting on the map! Industrial exoskeletons can be divided into three types: First are tool holding, these exoskeletons transfer the weight of heavy equipment used by workers through the device and into the ground. Second are lift assist exosuits which control the worker’s posture and provide passive or active power assistance during lifting. Finally are the wearable chairs, lightweight exoskeletons that can stiffen when employees have to crouch in uncomfortable positions for a long time.
Led by an aging working population in Asia and the desire for fewer employee related medical expenses in North America and Europe, industrial exoskeletons were taken more seriously than ever in 2015. South Korea and Japan led the pack last year, but they tended to have more elaborate, powered wearable robots that will still take a few years to optimize. US and EU industrial suit prototypes tended to be simpler, with an emphasis on creating useful devices now, which can later be upgraded and motorized as needed later.
Expect to see dozens of smaller, specialized active or passive exoskeletons for both the industry and the military in 2016. A great example is the 20KTS+ Marine Mojo. This exoskeleton is designed to absorb the shock in the knees from continuously operating light motor boats. The device is designed to function in a well defined environment, has clearly defined goals and is simplified to the point that it does exactly what it is required. As exos become more specialized, it will become easier to reduce their cost and it will make them an easier sell.
Exoskeletons for healthy users that do not have an industrial use can be divided into three categories: augmentative exoskeletons, resistive exoskeletons and tele-operating. Of the three, the assistive exoskeletons had the best year! The announcement of a passive ankle exoskeleton that can decrease the metabolic cost of walking after taking the weight of the device into account lit the internet on fire! This device was a major breakthrough. After nearly a decade of research, it is possible to create compact and cheap wearable devices that can augment the human body beyond what nature has already done. This is still a proof of concept rather than a device ready for mass marketing, but it was a great technological leap.
Resistive exoskeletons that collect energy from the human body while walking continued to be developed in 2015. There were new devices that generate electricity or air pressure while walking and NASA was still tinkering with a suit that can provide resistance to astronauts in space. The most novel hindering exoskeleton came from an insurance company that wanted to let people experience how their body will fail when they age. Called the Genworth R70i Aging Experience, this exoskeleton adds weight to the body and leg joints and would randomly lock up to simulate muscle weakness and balance issues in the elderly.
Finally, it seemed like exosuits for tele-operations, once a hot topic, would make a comeback but it wasn’t meant to be. NASA was working in the beginning of the year on a new wearable suit with a complicated force feedback mechanism for remotely controlling robot-astraunaouts. There was also some interest in creating force-feedback exosuits for computer gaming. These gaming devices can monitor the position of the limbs of the human operator and also generate forces such as the shockwave from an explosion near the virtual character. Otherwise, this application of exoskeleton technology stayed mostly dormant in 2015.
DIY (Do It Yourself) Exoskeletons in 2015
Robotics technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible, but more importantly more and more people are now seeing the potential of exoskeleton technology. This has started to generate enthusiasts that build their own wearable robotic devices and share them on the internet. Since exoskeletons are a very action orientated technology they make for great YouTube videos. In 2015 there were over half a dozen home made projects surfacing on the net and you can see many of them in the DIY (Do It Yourself) section of the Exoskeleton Report.
There are also a lot of robotics hobbyists that know they want to work on medical robots who are either not aware of wearable robotics or have not been sold on the idea that the field has future potential. As the technology proliferates in 2016, expect more people to start tinkering and experimenting in their homes, garages and local tech centers.
Another trend that will most likely emerge in 2016 will be the coalescence of DIY projects. Builders from across the globe will start coordinating their efforts to make more ambitious and refined projects. This has already been seen in other fields, such as automative and prosthetics where international teams have come together and shared their free time to come up with projects that rival those from academia and industry.
New Materials and Approaches
In 2015 many professionals wondered if the motors and materials for wearable robotics currently in use are good enough or if they could be immediately replaced with something better. For example, exoskeletons benefit from being highly compliant (bendable). Do materials have to be rigid with springs to simulate compliance or could the entire device be made out of soft materials? Human motion is precise, but does the device need to be accurate to the fraction of the degree or should it just provide a general motion assist? This opens the possibility for actuators that would be automatically rejected in standard robots. Questions like this have caused researchers to look for new materials and actuators as well as re-define what an exoskeleton system actually needs to do.
In 2015 there was a sharp increase in the interest towards soft exoskeletons and the use of pneumatics over hydraulics or electrical motors. At the end of the year, however, there was no clear consensus if this will be the future of the industry as many manufacturers and research labs have expressed their skepticism. Some labs have gone as far as to question if an exoskeleton needs to have separate components or could be simplified to a set of bowden cables or an air pump with an attached air muscle. In 2016, expect the idea of what is an exoskeleton robot to continue to evolve, but the vast majority of devices will still be sizable rigid frames with electrical motors.
Goodbye to 2015
Overall, this was a great year for exosuits, exoskeletons and wearable robotics devices. If the whole year could be summarized in just one picture, it would be this image from Chris Hadfield’s Generator in Toronto. In 2015, this was the largest assembly of different medical exoskeletons under one roof. From left to right is an ARKE by Bionik Laboratories, KEEGO by B-Temia, Ekso by Ekso Bionics, ReWalk by ReWalk Robotics, and REX by Rex Bionics. In 2016 there will be at least two gatherings that could dwarf this one, the WearRAcon16 in February and the Cybathlon in October.
From the Exoskeleton Report team, have a happy 2016!