I was asked by a coworker whether the FDA approval process was holding back exoskeleton rollout in the US? I answered “no.” While getting FDA approval for a medical exoskeleton is not an easy task, there are other forces that are slowing down exoskeleton development and proliferation. Last week I was asked again “what is the biggest obstacle to exoskeleton companies?” This time I had given the subject quite some thought. I believe that a lack of communication is the greatest challenge to the exoskeleton industry at this time.
Lack of clear communication effects exoskeleton development in three ways: First, it makes it difficult for investors to understand what the products are designed to do. Second, the general public is skeptical of exoskeletons and their capabilities. Third, lack of communication limits the collaborations between exoskeleton labs and companies.
Investor – Developer Communications
Over the last few weeks I have been visiting investor forums and websites to see how people discuss and view publicly traded businesses such as ReWalk Robotics and Ekso Bionics. What I found was that if not everyone, then the vast majority of investors did not understand the exoskeleton products. In one example, a Rex suit was compared to an Ekso GT. This makes as much sense as comparing a tractor to a sports car, they are both motor vehicles but are really designed to do completely different tasks.
Having investors and potential investors be ignorant of the products and technology diminishes investments and is also dangerous. In June of 2015, a blog poster on Seeking Alpha was able to launch a short attack against Ekso Bionics (you can read more about the incident here) by writing a single, extremely long and critical article. People are fearful when they deal with something they don’t understand and are threatened with losing their investments. The more people that gain a better understanding of exoskeleton technology, both capabilities and limitations, the more difficult it will become to mislead investors.
Public – Developer Communications
In a world obsessed with drones, VR, AI and other new technologies, exoskeletons are met with remarkable skepticism by investors and the general public alike. I believe this is caused from a fundamental lack of understanding of what exoskeletons are aiming to achieve. Drones for example, have very clear capabilities. Small drones can be used as toys, larger ones can be fitted with cameras, medium size drones can deliver a small package. Even larger drones can be used by farmers to monitor crops and the largest and most expensive models can be fully weaponized, flying long distances and delivering heavy payloads. Regardless of the make, all drones have limited flight time and are subject to more and more regulations. When people understand the details (both capabilities and limitations) they can become much more excited about exoskeleton development.
The general public is being bombarded with soundbites vying for their attention. Exoskeletons will turn our military into super soldiers. Exoskeletons can grant the elderly with mobility impairment independence. The disabled are on the verge of throwing away their wheelchairs for exoskeletons. But the public sees that there are no exoskeleton equipped troops, the elderly still need help with stairs and getting to the store and no one that has a permanent walking disability is getting rid of their wheelchairs. All of these will happen, but there needs to be more consistent communication from labs and developers where we are in the process.
Developer – Developer Communications
Last but not least, limits in communication within the exoskeleton industry hinders collaboration. It is understandable for commercial entities to not only patent the way they build their wearable devices but to also hold a lot of trade secrets. Trade secrets are in-house developed methods and procedures that have not been patented, but another company with more time and money could potentially patent, making it impossible to legally produce the original product. This is just one of the reasons why exo businesses tend to keep to themselves.
In the academia field there is also a competition for limited grant money. In addition, labs sometimes just don’t have the time and resources to communicate what has been achieved. Many websites dedicated to exoskeleton research initiatives are filled with broken links or have not been updated for a long time. Publishing research results in the dry format of research journals that are not accessible without a hefty fee for each article is becoming a very slow and outdated method for communicating project results.
At the February 2016 Wearable Robotics Conference, WearRAcon16, the one comment that I heard the most was “we have been working on wearable robotics for years, yet we haven’t seen any of these projects before.” Even developers that live and breathe exoskeletons are struggling with something as basic as keeping track of what is being done around the globe. The Exoskeleton Report team has no other task but to bring information together and even we had not seen over a third of the work presented.
Another phenomena that I have observed is the clustering of communication in the industry by regions (East Asia, EU and North America). In Japan where CYBERDYNE and large electronics companies are spearheading exoskeleton development, developers of wearable robotics for work and industry came together to create unified benchmarks. In the European Union, research labs share funding and scientists over multiple labs. All of the major EU players will come together for the second International Symposium on Wearable Robotics in Spain this October 2016. On the commercial side, Germany is leading in the proliferation of medical powered orthotics. The first Cybathlon or Cyborg Athlon will be held in Switzerland and is slated to feature dozens of powered wearable devices. North America is the third cluster, but most developers are looking to create spinoff companies. The Wearable Robotics Association (website) is currently the main organization that has identified linking the global community together as its priority.
I have been very fortunate to work in industries other than robotics. In my adventures in ion chromatography and HPLC I have encountered multiple sales catalogues that are 90% basic guidelines and textbooks on fluidics and liquid separation and 10% catalog. Commercial material in the form of websites, PDFs and booklets establish fundamentals and build user knowledge, and at the end feature “here is how our company can solve these problems.” There are several exoskeleton companies in existence that are already mature enough and can afford to start producing material with educational value.
Another communication opportunity is for the exoskeleton industry to get a jump start and control how it wants to be introduced to the youngest generation. Members of the FORTIS team of Lockheed Martin recently participated in a school outreach program, and one of the outcomes was a page for a coloring book that shows a developer wearing a FORTIS exoskeleton. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a coloring book that features 30 or so of the most current exoskeleton projects showing them in poses as they are intended to be used? With community outreach and coloring books also come toys. The LEGO Group already has a Duplo wheelchair and will introduce a LEGO System wheel chair for its City line this summer. If the LEGO Group is introducing wheelchairs as a minifigure accessory, medical exoskeletons can potentially come next. Now is the time for the exoskeleton industry to start controlling how it will be perceived by the youngest generation.
Does communication really matter?
I was talking to a professional exoskeleton engineer on this exact subject and they held the position that exoskeleton customers know what to expect from the products they have purchased, and therefore there were no communication issues. Adding up every single commercially sold exoskeleton in the world right now results in roughly 1000 customers. So the employees in 1000 facilities have understood what an exoskeleton product can do? Great, what about the millions of other potential customers and investors? The lack of consistent communication is costing exoskeleton companies both customers and investors every single day.
This should not be seen as criticism towards labs, companies and news organizations, but instead as an opportunity. The wheels of the exoskeleton industry have already started spinning significantly faster over the last two years. How much faster could they be turning if skeptics are turned into customers, investors and developers. Enhancing communications should become a mission statement for everyone with a passion for exoskeleton devices. Become an advocate and a leader for wearable robotics in your community. From conversations at your family dinner table to investment websites, share the knowledge that you have and educate those around you!
Lack of communication is the greatest challenge to the exoskeleton industry, really?
Had someone asked me half a year ago what is the greatest challenge to the exoskeleton industry, communication would have been at the very bottom of the list. Exoskeletons are expensive to develop. They have to be integrated with a soft human body that changes throughout the day. There are multiple safety and operational concerns. Only recently wearable robotics have started providing a net benefit. There is still a need for hundreds of studies to evaluate the effectiveness of wearables for medical and industrial use. There are no standards or guidelines for exoskeletons. Employers and insurers alike need to be convinced it is worth paying for exos. Exoskeletons have to be made more comfortable to wear for long durations. There are so many hurdles that the industry still has to overcome. But behind the solution to each challenge facing the industry are people. People that have to invest in the technology, coordinate their efforts, and present their findings. All of the challenges currently facing the industry will be cleared quickly if we increase the rate and quality of communications.