The Exoskeleton Report team was lucky to conduct an exclusive interview with the CEO and CTO of Fourier Intelligence right after their U.S. debut at WearRAcon17. Fourier Intelligence is the maker of the first commercial lower body exoskeleton in China. The company’s leadership team visited Phoenix, Arizona last April for WearRAcon17 organized by the Wearable Robotics Association.
Bobby (Borislav) Marinov, Co-Founder Exoskeleton Report – Moderator
Zhen-Hua Xu, CTO Fourier Intelligence
Jie Gu, CEO Fourier Intelligence
Bobby: This is the Exoskeleton Report and we are at WearRAcon 2017 (WearRAcon17) and we are here with Fourier Intelligence the first company in China to release a commercial exoskeleton.
Bobby: So, on the technical side you showed to us that you have a hip-knee powered exoskeleton (Fourier X1) and you transfer all of the weight to the ground with a spring mechanism at the ankle. For the rehabilitation version, do you have a controller, detachable from the suit so the therapist or the operator can monitor the device’s performance?
Zhen-Hua Xu: Yes, we do have a remote controller, but it is a wired, not wireless controller so that the therapist can use this controller to monitor the status of the exoskeleton.
Bobby: And a wired controller for those who don’t know, a wired controller is the better solution because you have lower lag time between the controller and the motor control and you don’t have any problems like suddenly losing connection so it is a safer way to do it as well.
Zhen-Hua Xu: Yes.
Bobby: And then you have a new innovation which is the LEDs which are at each joint hub so the LEDs change color and intensity depending on the strain that the motors are currently experiencing.
Zhen-Hua Xu: Yes.
Bobby: How did you come up with that idea? Was it someone in the marketing department, was it an R&D idea?
Zhen-Hua Xu: Actually, this idea came from the doctors because during their daily work they wanted to know how the patient is active. Maybe some patients are lazy, they don’t want to train? So they ask us, if there is any way to indicate if the training process or the training results for the patient. That’s where the idea came up to add the LEDs in our exoskeleton robot so the therapist can know if the patient is active at 100% or they are just acting at like 50%.
Bobby: That’s fantastic! And the last thing is you mentioned that you used the M2’s haptic feedback technology in conjunction with the exoskeleton, for the X1? So how do the two technologies intersect?
Zhen-Hua Xu: OK, so most of these devices are using the haptical force feedback technology and algorithm so in our M2 device we are using the servo motors to simulate both the resistance and mass of the object. So we can simulate a heavy object or a light object.
Bobby: So that is when you are in resistive mode?
Zhen-Hua Xu: Resistive mode.
Zhen-Hua Xu: The exoskeleton also uses the same technology. So the patient who is wearing the device, if they have a force on the device we can detect it and the motor can assist the patient at the hip or at the knee.
Bobby: So this is the same technology but in reverse.
Zhen-Hua Xu: Yes, it is the same thing just using different device, and one is for the upper limb and one is for the lower limb.
Jie Gu: Fourier Intelligence is located in Shanghai. We do exoskeletons we released the first commercial exoskeleton in China two months ago. Now, we have more than thirty R&D people in Shanghai and we also announced our rehabilitation robot last year.
Bobby: Oh, how interesting, you have more than thirty R&D people on staff?
Jie Gu: Yep.
Bobby: That’s amazing. So, where did you include them from, do you have a local university that you are working with?
Jie Gu: Yeah, some of our colleagues are recruited from universities. In Shanghai it is not difficult to find some talented people. In Shanghai, our area is very much like Silicon Valley. Also, between large companies and universities, we can find them [talented people].
Bobby: The is phenomenal. We are at the Wearable Robotics Conference 2017 and you just gave a phenomenal presentation. One of the things that you mentioned is that you have already done one exoskeleton project before. You have done a fixed frame rehabilitation exoskeleton for the lower body gait [rehabilitation]. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Jie Gu: We began a rehabilitation robot design from eight years ago. We first designed a lower limb gait training robot device. It can provide very early stage training for some stroke people, some SCIpeople and later we found such robot is too big and too heavy and it is not easy for patients to transfer from wheelchairs to the rehabilitation robot. So we designed and built the next generation of exoskeleton robots more lite and can do training and in the future it may even do personal use.
Bobby: It is great that you are bringing up personal use because there is clearly this conundrum right now, where the rehabilitation time is just not sufficient. A rehabilitation program would normally run six to twelve weeks. It is very expensive. No one completes it and more and more data from around the world suggests that that is just not enough. So this is an opportunity for wearable exoskeleton technology and rehabilitation robotics to extend the rehabilitation use to someone’s home. But what would you say as the main tasks that need to be achieved and the main technological hurdles before we can see exoskeletons for home use becoming a reality?
Jie Gu: The exoskeleton area, one is for rehabilitation another is for assistive device. Assistive device is the patient can not recover the function, recover function forever. They use the assistive device to work again. Just like me, without glasses I am also disabled. And the difficulty for personal use is far more than [greater] than rehabilitation. In hospitals the ground is clean and we can also provide a lot of safety protection. Our first step is to use exoskeleton devices in hospital use. For training purpose. And for the future we need to collect lots of data. The environment is very complex, we need to know the human intention. We need to build a large database of different gait curves. And also, maybe in the future, we need to solve the balance problem. If this problem is solved, then every disabled person will be able to work again.
Bobby: Yeah, that would be great. So on the business side, it is a dream for many of the North American and European exoskeleton companies to be able to go to China and to market their devices to what is arguably the biggest emerging market right now. You mentioned in your presentation that you are looking at 20-40% expansion in the rehabilitation market in China. I think a lot of these companies would wonder why are you coming to the U.S.?
Jie Gu: OK, first I think that the exoskeleton market is cap is very huge. So now, these companies, we don’t think that they are our competitor. Very famous companies such as ReWalk, Ekso, they are not our competitor. We need, together, to teach the market. And for my purpose for this trip is to, in China we are the first commercial rehabilitation exoskeleton company, in the U.S. already, more than five companies have announced commercial ones. So we want to come here and exchange our information, we want to learn from these pioneer companies. They are expert and we respect them. We want to learn lots of information from them. In China, in Shanghai, our Fourier, we won’t copy their idea but we think that rehabilitation robot, exoskeletons, still have a very long way, long road to go. So we want to know, what is the next step for the personal use exoskeletons? In rehabilitation, what is the newest research? This is what I am interested in. Another is, I don’t think most people know the Chinese market. So they can also learn lots of information from us.
Bobby: Absolutely! So you mentioned, educating, educating the public, educating investors and stakeholders and hospitals. In your case, how were you able to achieve that? How were you able to educate the Chinese government and explain to them “hey this is a viable technology and we would like to get some funding.”
Jie Gu: First, in China lots of people have begun to get interested in exoskeletons. Yesterday, the Shanghai prime minister also came to our booth to see the exoskeleton [at another event]. This device is very good for disabled people. In China, more than 10 million people can not work. There is a huge market, not only for money, there is also some social value. You can decrease the total social cost for these disabled people. Another is, exoskeletons is a fantastical technology. Lots of boys like this, lots of people, from children to now adults they all like robots. So they all want to become Ironman. So if you are doing an exoskeleton, lots of people will want to know the details, the applications area, and something else.
Bobby: Oh! Well, that is fantastic. Thank you. Are there any closing remarks that you would like to make?
Jie Gu: I think that communication is very important for both countries. We are the first Chinese company to come to WearRAcon. And maybe next year, maybe more Chinese companies will come to this conference. I think that communication is very important for both of us. We want to find more friends in this area to exchange our new technology and the love for that.
Bobby: And members of the conference will be going to China to this year as well.
Jie Gu: Yeah, so welcome to Shanghai, welcome to Beijing.
Bobby: Fantastic, thank you!
Jie Gu/Zhen-Hua Xu: Thank you!
Bobby: Thank you very much for your time. Thank you for coming. It was great to have you. It is great to be able to learn about what happens on other continents, especially in China, it is very …
Links & Acknowledgments:
For more information, visit the Fourier Intelligence website: http://www.fftai.com/index_en.php
Special thanks to the Wearable Robotics Organization (link) for executing the largest and most diverse exoskeleton event of all time, WearRAcon17! If you didn’t get a chance to attend the 2017 event, don’t worry, we have you covered! See our reports of Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and the Innovation Challenge 17!