What is so special about wearable exoskeleton technology? I think the answer is quite simple. Wearable exoskeleton technology has the potential to change the world for the better.
Here you might be thinking, “Yeah, yeah. We have heard that before. You are just trying to create some hype and get some money.” Well, allow me to convince you otherwise.
Wearable exoskeleton technology has the potential to effect every person on this planet, all seven billion of us. Consider what robotics has done for the world and now imagine if that capability is paired with a human, not to replace them but to augment them.
While it is true that exoskeletons still have some ways to go before they can affect everyone, the already existing products and prototypes, can serve as an example as to the impact this technology will most likely have in the future:
Back injuries are some of the most common ailments to affect workers. A back injury, while very painful to the employee experiencing it, is also painful for the employer. A project’s deadline is always threatened by injuries and workers becoming unable to show up due to an injury. In the western world, millions if not billions of dollars are spent in treating back injuries, sick time, and litigation fees. But have you ever stopped to think what is the effect of a back injury on a person in the developing world?
If a back injury to a worker is detrimental in the western world where the employees have access to medical care and physical rehabilitation, it is completely devastating to those in a developing country. A worker in a developing country that gets injured will most likely not get access to worker’s compensation or get physical rehabilitation. Even worse, they might have been the primary source of income for their family, an income that will now be gone forever. But what if an exoskeleton can prevent this?
Exoskeletons that aim to improve worker safety are considerably cheaper than those aimed at improving worker’s efficiency. For example, the FLx by StrongArm Technologies has an MSRP of less than $300. With some revisions and higher unit volumes, that price can most likely come down. If workers in developing countries are, let’s say, 20% less likely to have a back injury because they are wearing an exoskeleton that is designed to encourage proper body posture, that can affect millions of workers throughout the world. When you add in their dependants and families, there are billions of people whose lives could be improved by keeping workers safer.
Staying active has been proven to be beneficial. Sitting down for prolonged periods of time is becoming the new smoking. They are not well known, but there are already exoskeletons that are designed for sports, specifically skiing. These exoskeletons reduce the shock and stress on the knees, allowing people to stay on the ski slopes longer. In addition to able-bodied exoskeletons for the ski slopes, assistive exoskeletons hold the potential to keep the elderly population moving longer. I have seen this with my family. As my grandparents age, they are becoming less and less mobile, even if they used to love hiking before.
The technology isn’t quite there yet, but there are billions of seniors that want to stay active. They want to be able to go to the store, see their friends and live a healthy life. The number one reason listed that is stopping them? Stairs. It is no wonder that Superflex, the spinoff company from SRI, is looking into a relatively simpler and lighter exoskeleton that can provide assistance during sit-to-stand and therefore stair climbing.
Wearable Exoskeleton Technology also holds a lot of potential in the medical realm. Multiple studies have suggested that early ambulation after surgery or any other major mobility incapacitation is key. Studies are showing that the faster a patient gets up and moving (in this case with the help of a medical exoskeleton), the faster their recovery is. On the subject of recovery, rehabilitation has been a major application for exos.
Studies are demonstrating that in some cases, exoskeleton assistive technology is equivalent if not superior to two or three physiotherapists working at the same time. The exoskeleton is not meant to replace physiotherapists, quite the opposite. It is a tool to augment existing rehabilitation programs and reduce the injury rate of practitioners in the field. Exoskeletons could also hold some advantages, such as correctly facilitating weight shift and ensuring the proper alignment and synchronization of both sides of the body.
But the above is just the beginning. Experiments are showing promise in interactive rehabilitation: virtual reality, haptic feedback, force assistance, and repeated, reproducible motions. This can be achieved with general rehabilitation robotics as well as rehabilitation exoskeletons. Even though rehabilitation technology has been around for decades, we are only now beginning to scratch the surface of how far this technology can be pushed. Studies from 2016 suggest that using virtual reality, haptic and audio feedback and the power assistance of an exoskeleton, the conscious mind can be tricked into believing it can really achieve full recovery which has led to some impressive results (although they are yet to be replicated, but research groups around the globe have already started these efforts).
A longstanding dream has been to have home use exoskeletons that provide functional assistance to improve the quality of life for the elderly and disabled. This dream is finally becoming a reality. As ab example, Myomo, maker of the MyoPro arm exoskeleton, is getting more and more of its home use devices in the hands of those that need them. The MyoPro, and similar wearables provide functional assistance to an arm and hand that is not fully paralyzed but can’t be used for everyday tasks. Imagine cutting a carrot or pushing a cart with only one hand (next time you are the market, try it out, it is impossible to keep the shopping cart under control with only one hand). With a home use assistive arm exoskeleton, the user can.
If you consider all of the people that suffer from incurable mobility ailments, exoskeleton technology can have a positive impact on each and every one of them, and this is no longer just a dream.
We have already touched on worker safety, but what about fatigue and productivity? Many tasks can be simple, but cause a person to be exhausted. A surgeon standing up for 12 hours on his feet during a long procedure, an employee that has to carry one or more layers of personal protective equipment or someone that has to hold a heavy tool above their chest level for a long time. All of these tasks and conditions can cause a quick buildup in fatigue, which then leads to work errors and accidents. Wearable exoskeleton technology is well positioned to address these issues.
Without a doubt, the militaries around the world (with some exception) have given up on the idea of making a combat ready powered exoskeleton that will go in an active combat zone. However, there are still many other applications being considered. One of the more obvious ones is logistics. Many field bases do not have the cranes and forklifts one would expect and exoskeletons that can assist soldiers with loading or unloading supplies can be quite useful.
Virtual reality is going to take the world by storm in the next few years. This is in no small part due to the open source nature of the technology. Rather than keeping it secret, the software to connect to virtual reality is made readily available, and developers around the world are encouraged to create VR products. This will create an intersection point between existing exoskeleton technology and virtual reality makers. Rehabilitation, gaming, and training simulators (military, medical, industrial) will all benefit from this tech. This has the potential to save lives and money. Dentistry schools already have something similar for years. A dental student will go through practical 1 to 1 dummies on real dental chairs. A dental student comes out of school with real hands on experience. Virtual reality combined with exoskeletons could change the way education is done. Graduates that are strong in theory but lack hands-on experience could become a thing of the past.
People ask me regularly why I am interested in wearable exoskeleton technology. My answer is, how could I not be? Recent meetings like WeRob2016, Exoskeleton Technical Interchange Meeting 2017, WearRAcon2016, Cybathlon 2016 and the Exoskeleton Technology Brokerage and Pitching Event 2016 show that there are others who are interested too. Of course, progress takes time. In 2017 and 2018 expect many projects to be canceled and for entire exoskeleton companies to fail (which is part of capitalism). Overall however, the exoskeleton industry is moving in the right direction and there are many reasons in addition to the ones listed above to get excited about wearable exoskeleton technology.