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2016 Year in Review: Exoskeletons and Wearable Robotics

2016 Year in Review: Exoskeletons and Wearable Robotics

How did the wearable robotics, exoskeletons, and exosuits market perform in 2016?  Join us, as we go back in time and summarize how each segment in the exoskeleton industry fared last year.

Overview of 2016:

  • additional regulatory approvals in the medical market
  • less than desirable adoption of medical exoskeletons
  • an explosion in exoskeletons for work and industry
  • multiple events devoted to exoskeleton technology
  • homegrown exoskeleton builders becoming disillusioned

Medical Exoskeletons in 2016:

In the world of medical exoskeletons, 2016 was a mixed bag.  On the bright side, most larger medical exo manufacturers received additional regulatory approvals and completed new studies.  For example, the FDA approved the Indego and Ekso GT as safe for use medical devices.  The Japanese government did the same for the HAL.  New batches of clinical trials emphasized that wearable robotics are not just equivalent to standard therapy but can be superior.

On the not-so-bright side, the adoption of medical exoskeletons has been slower than expected.  2016 was a bittersweet year for medical exoskeletons.

The good:  More research studies were finished and now there is a common consensus that at the very least, lower and upper body rehabilitation with a wearable robot is at least as good as one to three trained physiotherapists working at the same time.  With a risk of greatly oversimplifying, these are the key elements that emerged last year:

Medical rehabilitation benefits from being interactive.  The user has to be involved.  Now, this seems like a no-brainer, but there are a few tricks to watch out for.  First, the user must force themselves to believe they can successfully complete a movement in the paralyzed or incapacitated limb, even if their conscious mind tells them it’s wasted effort.  Research in 2016 showed that Virtual Reality combined with haptic feedback (a sense of touch on the skin anywhere on the body) can be applied to great benefits.

Second, in most cases, the exoskeleton shouldn’t take over; it has to move together with the user.  Suddenly in 2016, medical exoskeletons transitioned from a hardware problem (how to build an exoskeleton) to a software problem (how to better control the exoskeleton).  To be clear, the level of control optimization being performed is not if the exoskeleton should activate or not, but exactly when, in the range of a few milliseconds.  Still, for users with minimum or nonexistent ambulation capabilities, the exoskeletons will have to take the full control of movement, including weight shift.

Third, the Kestler Foundation published a Ted Talk that compared the kinematics of classical gait rehabilitation with that of one performed with an exoskeleton.  This was a clear win for the exoskeletons since the user demonstrated not only movement of the leg, but correct foot placement and proper hip transition from the very beginning.  This is something that regular gait rehabilitation fails to accomplish even with multiple people working with the same person.  To this effect, companies such as Ekso Bionics and Hocoma released new software and modules that allow for greater control at the hip and facilitation of weight shift.

The bad:  As expected, the medical exoskeleton field, especially for lower body rehabilitation, is starting to become saturated.  In 2016 we saw the loss of the first lower body exoskeleton startup company.  Without a doubt, 2017 will hold more unpleasant surprises with more startups shutting down operations and exoskeletons being discontinued.

The ugly:  Sales of medical exoskeletons for rehabilitation and assistance have been growing but at a subdued pace.  The rate of medical exoskeleton adoption was slowed in 2016 by several factors:  There are few standards in the testing or implementation.  Also, best practices for the use of medical exos are still in development.  Because this is such a new technology, there is no handbook on marketing wearable robotics.  As a matter of fact, 2016 still didn’t give birth to a handbook or primer on exoskeleton technology.  Finally, the entry cost for medical wearable robotics remains high, and with a few exceptions, insurance companies are not convinced they need to get involved at this point to begin reimbursements.

Industrial Exoskeletons in 2016:

From the point of view of wearable robotics and exoskeleton technology, 2016 will most likely be thought of as the year of industrial exoskeletons.  At the 2nd Annual Technology and Development Day hosted by Ekso Bionics, Dr. Joe Hitt of the Wearable Robotics Association predicted that exoskeletons for the workplace are the low lying fruit of the exoskeleton industry.  He was right on the mark!  Last year there was a sharp increase in releases of exoskeletons dedicated for the workplace.  These devices can be roughly divided into three categories:

  • full-body exoskeletons with multiple motors designed to turn the user into a super worker
  • partially motorized wearables that provide force at one joint in the body such as the hip
  • passive exoskeletons that utilize springs and counterweight technology to improve worker safety and decrease fatigue

In 2015 it felt like the primary players in the industrial field were Lockheed Martin, Ekso Bionics, and Panasonic.  But it turned out that the engineers in companies such as Laevo, CYBERDYNE, SuitX, Exhauss, StrongArm Technologies, BR3D, Innophys, Bioservo, Hyundai, and others were hard at work developing their own industrial devices.

Interest in exoskeletons for the work and industry field was driven by the promise of increased worker safety, widening the range of people that could perform hard labor and improved productivity.  All of these devices are in various stages of worksite testing, and there is an increasing interest in creating common, international test standards and agreed upon terminology.

WearRA predicted 2016 would be the year for industrial exoskeletons and their prediction did not disappoint.

Military Exoskeletons in 2016:

Testing results for wearable robots by the military are either secret or difficult to obtain.  However, the tone was quite obvious.  There is a sense of frustration that exoskeletons are not ready to be used in a battle zone.  In a combat situation, the risk a powered exoskeleton will get the soldier killed still far outweighs any potential benefits.  While military powered exoskeletons are struggling to prove their worth, several passive devices gained momentum.  Passive military exoskeletons do not have any motors or controllers and therefore are more durable and require much less attention to maintain and operate.  Some notable applications have been reducing stress and strain on the knees due to exposure to prolonged vibrations and a knee wearable that collects energy to charge the batteries of a soldier while they are walking.

Commercial/Consumer Exoskeletons in 2016:

Consumer exoskeletons might be the sleeping giant of the exo industry, but in 2016 they most definitely remained asleep.  Other than sports injury prevention, there have been few applications for wearable mechanisms.  With the rise of virtual reality technology, however, there could be a sharp increase in the interest for consumer exoskeletons in 2017.

Homemade and DIY Exos in 2016:

Homemade exoskeletons, primarily the ones published on YouTube, have reached the level of professional exoskeletons from the early 2000s.  On the bright side, low budget wearable robots made by just a handful of people are starting to become very impressive.  On the not so bright side, DIY builders have started to fall into the power trap of the early 2000s.  Builders want to make large exoskeletons that cleanly lift large, heavy objects.  It looks impressive, generates lots views and it is easy to understand.  However, the power need is enormous and actuators and the methods for powering them become overweight.  This requires a sturdier frame to be built to support them, which then requires even larger actuators and greater sources of power, creating a repeating loop commonly referred to as the power trap.

Several times in 2016, builders will make an exoskeleton, lift a few heavy objects and then come to the correct and logical conclusion that the wearable is useless.  Homemade exoskeletons will continue to spin their wheels in place until the desire for lifting really heavy objects is replaced with other applications (example, exoskeletons that lower fatigue, improve safety, increase blood circulation, assist the elderly).  These types of devices will not be as flashy as lifting 200 pounds but could have actual applications.

In just the first week of 2017, we have seen that the DIY branch of exo-technology will be receiving a major boost in the form of the first ever exoskeleton developers kit.  The kit is in development by EduExo and is expected to be released towards the middle of 2017.  Look for more information on EduExo and predictions on what 2017 might hold for exoskeletons in later articles.

Events and Competitions in 2016:

Last year broke all records for exoskeleton events!  Between CYBATHLON, WearRAcon16 and WeRob2016 everyone from CEOs to technicians from all over the world were driven to meet face to face.  This is in additional to the technical and medical shows which featured many wearable robotics devices.  2016 was truly the first year where exoskeleton developers from all over the world were encouraged to rub shoulders together, and it marked a significant rise in the interest towards the technology.

To see all of the above news in reverse chronological order just visit the Exoskeleton Report Archive.

What to expect in 2017 in the field of exoskeleton technology?

  • More events
  • More interest by stakeholders
  • More business transactions
  • Integration of virtual reality
  • At least a few companies and labs terminating projects or closing doors altogether

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