Civilian and commercial exoskeletons comprise the smallest subfield of the exoskeleton industry, but they also hold the greatest commercial promise. The main potential for commercial exoskeletons is their possibility to be accepted as motorized transportation device that requires minimum infrastructure. Cars and motorcycles need paved roads to move people and goods. The better the road quality, the faster and safer motor vehicles can travel. Exoskeletons for transportation have the potential to move individuals and cargo over rough terrain as basic as dirt mountain trails. However, this is still in the distant future. For now, commercial exoskeletons are limited in scope to medical augmentation, hiking, and sports injury prevention.
Many of the current commercial exoskeletons are rooted in military or medical exos. Commercial exoskeletons are exos that can be used outside of a medical rehabilitation context and are not for work & industry. Many commercial exoskeletons have military versions as well.
The current commercial exoskeletons can be placed into four groups:
- Hiking Assistance
- Education (mostly theoretical)
- Camera Gimbal Support
Augmentation commercial exoskeletons for walking, hiking and general transportation
Arguably this is the “Holy Grail” or ultimate goal of the exoskeleton industry. Imagine a decade or two from now exoskeletons becoming adopted as a conventional vehicle like a car or a motorcycle. For example, an average person on foot would walk about 400m from a public transportation stop without any assistance. If an exoskeleton can reduce the metabolic cost of walking it could mean that they would be now willing walk 450m or even 500m. This would drastically increase the number of people the same public transportation system can service.
Another example is tackling stairs. Many people with walking impairment report that they can still move freely in their house and neighborhood with the exception of stairs. In suburbia like Silicon Valley finding stairs can be a challenge. But go to the East Coast of the U.S. or to another continent and there are stairs everywhere.
The Honda Body Weight Support Assist is designed by the Honda Fundamental Research Institute; this is the same team that created the ASIMO humanoid robot. The device can provide the equivalent of 6.5 to 18 pounds pushing up on the seat, depending on the bend of the knees and the force detected by the sensors in the shoe soles. The forces were derived by trial and error and most likely will have to be customized from user to user. The motivation behind the project was to address the mobility loss in aging individuals. From 1999 the group had created at least 30 prototypes to get to the final two models in 2008.
- Body Weight Support by Honda
- Stride Management by Honda
- PowerWalk by Bionic Power
- SuperFlex by SRI Robotics / SuperFlex
- Passive Ankle Exoskeleton
- C-Brace by Ottobock
- Keeogo by B-Temia
Sports exoskeletons for strain and injury prevention
Exoskeletons for skiing have been available in Europe for the last several years. They are a spring damper system for the knees. Sports exoskeletons can reduce strain and stress on the knees due to vibrations and overexertion. They are usually small enough to be worn below the bulky winter clothing. While they are currently not being sold in large quantities, expect to see them at your local winter resort in the future.
- Ski~Mojo by SkiMojo
- Againer by Againer-Ski
Exoskeletons for education are mostly an idea. If an injured person can benefit from repeating a perfectly reproducible motion with the help of a robot could healthy individuals also have something to gain? The military has made a pilot device that fights natural arm trembling while holding a pistol. The technology is based off a medical exoskeleton for tremor suppression. Initial results hint that the brain can be trained to hold the gun arm steadier than before leading to improved shooting accuracy.
Another possibility for educational exoskeletons could be playing the piano. A medical glove exoskeleton can be used to give a nudge to the fingers of a student learning to play the piano. The effect will be similar to having the piano teacher push the keys with the student’s hand underneath. This will build up muscle memory. Also, an exoskeleton glove will always play the keys in the same, reproducible manner.
While not an exoskeleton, robots for education are starting to proliferate in the U.S. The golf robots from RoboGolfPro hold a golf stick on one side while the user holds the same stick on the opposite side. The robot and the user execute a full swing together. The swing can be simple in a single plane or very complex. The swings can also be perfect copies of those used by professional golfers. With a golf robot, you can feel and practice just like a professional. Moreover, the user executes the same swing in the same way potentially thousands of times. This creates a massive improvement in consistency on the golf course. Unfortunately, there are no studies that use a golf robot and compare it against traditional training.
- Golf Robot by RoboGolfPro
- MAXFAS: A Mobile Arm Exoskeleton For Firearm Aim Stabilization
Camera Gimbal Support
Camera holding spring loaded devices have been around for decades. It is easy to dismiss them as not being “true” exoskeletons and they have been developed separately from the rest of the industry. Camera support and stabilization devices, however, share the same design challenges as their tool holding counterparts for work & industry. They have to be comfortable, not overload other joints in the body and demonstrate usefulness. Camera holding exos closely resemble tool holding exos but have been mostly developed separately. Commercial camera gimbal holder exoskeletons have widely proliferated around the globe and are even sold on Amazon.com. They are often used by amateur and professional videographers alike.
Example of exoskeleton designed or famous for being good at holding camera gimbals: