The first Wearable Robotics Association Convention, WearRAcon16 is in full swing in its second and busiest day. Exoskeleton experts from around the world started exchanging ideas early in the morning during a breakfast sponsored by the Arizona State University (did we mention there has been fantastic food throughout the duration of the conference?). Multiple exoskeleton projects and posters were on display both inside the main room and outside on the patio. Having breakfast surrounded by 3D printed exoskeletons, a KEEOGO by B-Temia, a wearable water conductive cooler, inflatable actuators, a one motor exoskeleton for running and an Ekso Works was an unforgettable experience!
Some of the projects were also a part of an innovation competition sponsored by the Wearable Robotics Association and balloting was done throughout the day. The ExR team members (Bobby Marinov and Tri Dao) were able to talk to many of the young inventors and will do our best to share what we have learned from them in the coming days.
Based on the speaker list everyone knew that the general session for WearRAcon16 Day 2 was going to be dynamite! First up to the plate were Ekso Bionics, creators of the Ekso GT for medical use (recently reviewed for stroke recovery by the Kessler Foundation) and the Ekso Works tool holding exoskeleton for industrial use. Much to the crowd’s delight, both exoskeleton variants were demonstrated and were made available for closer examination throughout the day. Being able to see the suits in person was not only a phenomenal experience but a very educational one! For example, did you know that the Ekso Works does not have any built-in locking mechanisms for the legs? Neither did we! The industrial suit relies on the natural locked angle of the knee and the counterweights on the back to naturally center the legs. Another surprise was the ease with which the Ekso Works can be removed. The tool gimble, zeroG arm (recently acquired by Ekso Bionics), footplates and suit itself are all separate modules that are quite easy to get out of.
Next up was undoubtedly the greatest authority on soft exoskeletons, Dr. Conor Walsh from the Wyss Institute at Harvard. Recently Dr. Walsh was on Disruptive with a podcast on Bio-inspired Wearable Robotics. The Wyss Institute is a very active organization and regularly publishes papers and videos of their projects so we weren’t expecting any surprises, but somehow the presentation was loaded with new material! In fact, Dr. Walsh was able to cram so much content into his 30 minute time slot that the ExR team will have to cover it separately. But here are some of the highlights as a preview: emphasis on Hip-Ankle actuation, exploring soft exoskeletons for new applications and a new generation of inflatable materials that are no longer silicon molds. In his presentation the soft wearable robotics specialist emphasized that soft exoskeletons are not meant to replace traditional rigid devices.
The last presenter of the general session was Greg Sawicki, the maker of the Passive Ankle Exoskeleton. This is a revolutionary passive wearable that reduces the net metabolic cost of walking after taking the cost of wearing the exoskeleton into consideration. Dr. Sawicki’s work has been really important for two main reasons. It showed that small, unpowered dedicated to a specific task devices can be optimized to work. This goes against the once commonly held notion that exoskeletons need to be large and powerful. Second, his lab has demonstrated that the metabolic cost of an action is not always payed at the moment the action is performed. The team used a small attachable ultra sound probe to “see” the movement of the muscles while walking. Combined with motion capture technology, the lab was able to gain insight on the energy expenditure by the leg muscles and then determine when and how to assist them. Quoting Dr. Walsh: “… [we] have to find opportunities to reduce metabolic costs…” which is not the same as pushing the leg along during the gait cycle. Dr. Walsh gave his talk while wearing the Passive Ankle Exoskeleton the entire time and he allowed attendees to try it on afterwards. The full presentation will also be covered another time.
In the following two sessions, the Wearable Robotics Association began the task of streamlining standards and benchmarks for exoskeletons. The first hour was a presentation on the format and complexity of regulations. In the later sessions, the audience was encouraged to actively engage in brainstorming how to approach the challenge. It is interesting to note how quickly it became apparent that this will be a monumental task, but a task that has to be performed. At ExR we have been greatly challenged in comparing exoskeleton devices to each other because of the lack of uniform metrics. It also makes it difficult for companies to request devices. One example that was given was what would happen if the military requested a waterproof exoskeleton. Does that mean it should survive a few drops of water, a light shower, a rain storm or being submerged under water? At the moment the US military has the capability to test each suit individually because there are very few manufacturers but what about 5 or 10 years from now?
Normally the above would have been enough for any exoskeletoner, but this was only the halfway point of WearRAcon16 Day 2! After a fantastic lunch there were still two exoskeleton device spotlights, several panels and an award ceremony!
HeSA – Powered hip exoskeleton for superior assistance, created by Spring Active (website) in collaboration with Arizona State University. Originally a military device, it applies power (~15N·m) to the hips while walking or running and is completely automated. The device is designed to attach to a standard armored U.S. military vest, which is a very unique connection point. Another interesting feature is that the motors will turn themselves off and not get in the way if the user is jumping, tumbling or climbing.
The second suit was a fantastic passive exoskeleton that reduces the force on the spine while bending forward: Laevo by Laevo (website). Designed for workers that have to perform bending motions or users that already experience back pain, this lightweight suit redistributes some of the naturally occurring forces in the human body and partially redirects them away from the spine. When the wearer bends forward, they feel a slight compression in their chest. If the user continues the motion and kneels or sits down the gas spring completely disengages and does not apply a needless constant pressure while holding the position. This is an exoskeleton project that squarely fits into the “low hanging fruit” of industrial exoskeletons as described by Dr. Joseph Hitt during his talk at the 2nd Annual Tech & Dev Day by Ekso Bionics.
The last panels of the day dealt with continuing the discussion on benchmarking exoskeleton devices, a new control method that could replace EMG sensors and a new exoskeleton on sale from Spain:
Dr. Qining Wang fromPeking University is working on a lightweight, powered ankle prosthesis PKU-RoboTPro. Originally controlled by EMG sensors at the stump of the leg, the sensors would provide less reliable signal with the onset of muscle fatigue, accumulation of sweat and repeated compression during the day. The suggested alternative is C-Sens capacitance sensor band that can detect changes in the conformation of the leg prior to movement. Dr. Wang also shared that China is going through a robotics revolution with as many as one thousand new robotics companies sprouting over the last two years. We should expect to see a lot more wearable robotics coming out of China!
In the last panel, Carlos Isoird introduced the audience to the GOGOA Mobility Robots (website). Designed for rehabilitation, this is a powered Hip-Knee-Ankle exoskeleton. The suits are made in Spain, run from 60,000 to 80,000 Euros and utilize direct EMG and EMC control. So far 20 units have already been sold, which is a very strong start considering the three market leaders have sold 200 each on average.
Finally, the Innovation Challenge winners were announced during the Evening Mixer. Dr. Sawicki’s poster on the Passive Ankle Exoskeleton won first place in the Poster Contest and a free entrance to the next WearRAcon. The HART Lab from UC Berkeley won both Fan Favorite and the Innovation Challenge. The HART Lab received a giant check for $5000 from the Wearable Robotics Association and a free entrance to the next WearRAcon! Congratulations to all of the winning team members!
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