In March 20th, 2015 the co-founder of Ekso Bionics, CEO Nathan Harding and CTO Russ Angold appeared on FOX Business to showcase the company’s new exoskeleton for industrial use. In the video clip provided by FOX Business, the two co-founders also discuss the decision by the FDA to list exoskeletons as Class II devices and comment on the successful proliferation of the dedicated for rehabilitation Ekso suit. The star of the video though is the new exoskeleton suit by Ekso Bionics for industrial use.
It appears that Ekso Bionics has now officially entered the race for creating an exoskeleton for use by able-bodied workers in an industrial setting. This type of suit would be worn by a strong and perfectly able-bodied employee in order to assist holding heavy equipment or materials. In concept, heavy tools such as grinders, welders, or cutters can be attached to the exoskeleton which then takes the weight of the instrument and transmits it around the operator and into the ground. When leaning forward, the weight of the tools or instruments supported by the exoskeleton can be checked by counterweights attached to the back.
Visually, the Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics exoskeletons may not look like much, but the companies have created two extremely interesting devices! By taking a regular exoskeleton and stripping away all of the sensors, motors and electronics this new breed of passive exoskeletons can finally be simple enough in order to achieve mass production. A suit that has no electrical components will be easier to produce, maintain and operate. The modes of failure will be reduced by at least an order of magnitude making it a safer piece of equipment. These passive exoskeletons can be sold to companies not as “expensive and exotic” but as “oh, this is so simple, why didn’t we think of this” type of product.
Up until now, there have been only a couple of companies officially attempting to develop an exoskeleton for industrial use. The two were Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and Lockheed Martin with the FORTIS (see From HULC to MANTIS to FORTIS Exoskeleton: Development History). If Ekso Bionics has developed their own version of the FORTIS, could that be seen as direct competition?
Looking closely at the video at FOX Business and pictures of the FORTIS suit there are clear and obvious differences: FORTIS uses a peg-like connection to the ground while the new Ekso Bionic device has retained the classical foot plate, FORTIS has push pins for height adjustment while the newly presented suit uses latches and the two suits have a different placement of the hip joints. The newly presented exoskeleton for industrial use by Ekso Bionics has a different construction than the FORTIS, but appears to work in exactly the same way and the two devices may end up being rivals.
An Ekso Bionics representative recently posted – “ We have a close working relationship with Lockheed Martin who licenses the FORTIS technology from us, as they do for their HULC suits.” Hopefully the two companies will continue to work together and pull their resources to conduct methodical studies that show the financial advantages for the use of exoskeletons in an industrial setting.
Originally, this article stated that: “the FORTIS exoskeleton was a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics.” It appears that Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics collaborated on the HULC and MANTIS exoskeletons, but did not work together on the FORTIS.
The statement made by Ekso Bionics representatives on Facebook that FORTIS is licensed to Lockheed Martin could not be independently verified.