The second day of the largest wearable robotics conference for 2017 continued the theme from day one of alternating technical developments with their business ramifications. This is one of the largest improvement to the Wearable Robotics Association Conference format. The conference is not just focused on exoskeleton technical developments, but the presenters and panels challenge the developers to think how their products will be evaluated, marketed, and sold. This year’s conference has brought the people needed to answer these questions under one roof; from researchers all the way to current buyers of exoskeleton technology.
WearRAcon17 Day Two started with a breakfast that gave the early birds at the conference a chance to make new connections or just put a face behind previous email conversations. The breakfast transitioned into a question and answer session for this year’s Innovation Challenge. Just like the one from last year, the WearRA Innovation Challenge is designed to give smaller research labs, student side projects, hobbyists, and even tiny startups the opportunity to present their innovations and face off in a friendly competition.
The keynote presentation for the second day of the conference was reserved for Dr. Michael Goldfarb, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Goldfarb is best known as the creator of the Indego gait rehabilitation exoskeleton which is currently in development by Parker Hannifin. During his keynote speech, it became apparent that the creator of the Indego has a slightly different point of view of medical gait rehabilitation exoskeletons. He started with the now well-accepted rule that just because a person is moving with an exoskeleton does not guarantee by itself that the person will be able to walk better once the rehabilitation program is complete and no powered walking assistive device is used.
The initial research on the Indego at Vanderbilt University started with trying to answer what is most valuable for physical rehabilitation? Should the exoskeleton move the patient, or would preventing them from falling such as locking the knee in case of knee buckling be enough? How much customization is required from person to person? What are the best practices? As expected, Dr. Goldfarb emphasized the natural synergy between FES integration and exoskeletons. The exo provides structure while FES provides a greater level of body muscle utilization and possibly, rehabilitation. Surprisingly, the presentation also included a prototype of a hand exoskeleton for grasping.
Innovation Challenge Briefing
This is new for the WearRAcon family. Each innovation challenge finalist was given time to present their entry on the main conference stage in front of the judges and all attendees in a quest to win the title of fan favorite in a six minute lighting pitch (each conference attendee had one ballot to cast for fan favorite poster and fan favorite innovation challenge entree). This, of course, was not the only time the presenters had time to show off their exoskeletons and wearable robots. The posters and entrees were on permanent display in and in front of the reception hall. This year’s Innovation Challenge was sponsored by StrongArm Technologies and their CEO Sean Petterson joined the illustrious judging panel with Thomas Looby, CEO Ekso Bionics and CTO Richard Little of Rex Bionics.
Giving an opportunity for the finalists of the Innovation Challenge to present in front of the entire conference ended up being a great idea. The presentations were short, fast, but each and every presenter was prepared to work within the six-minute time limit and still found the time to present the history of the device and an overview of currently available solutions.
Switching from the role of sponsor and judge, Sean Petterson, CEO and Forbes’ 30 Under 30 honoree somehow managed to present in 30 minutes how the:
- StrongArm exoskeleton have been developed
- V22 and fLX are being introduced to work sites
- company created a data-driven safety evaluation scheme
SrongArm Technologies reaffirmed its commitment to the industrial athlete. The main question by Sean is, why is so much money and attention dedicated to sports athletes, but not the average construction worker that dedicates their whole life to building and transporting. Back injury is the number one risk for on the job injuries. StrongArm Technologies is interested in improving the safety for these workers and finding a way to quantify it. The company has worked on a sensor and data evaluation technology that can assign a safety score for an entire work site and its employees. This development opens the door to presenting quantifiable data on the efficacy of the V22 and fLX ergosketons. This is vital, as quantifiable goals become achiavable goals.
Commercializing Human Mechatronic Technologies – The Long Climb
Next up was Achilleas Dorotheou, VP/Head, Human Motion Parker Hannifin Corporation. This was a fantastic presentation on what it is like to be a startup under the wing of a giant, 100 year old company. In the tradition of WearRAcon17, this was the business counterpart presentation to Dr. Goldfarb’s keynote presentation. Dorotheou shared his vision for the industry and skepticism for recent paid business reports that claim exoskeletons will become a billion dollar industry overnight. There were also several hints and tips on what should make a successful medical exoskeleton company:
- developing medical exoskeletons will be a LONG, decade-long climb
- DELIVER milestones
- FOCUS on your product without going into tangent research
- don’t give into MEDIA hype
- Don’t be overburdened with good ideas if there aren’t the resources to implement them
- know your BOSS, be it upper management or investors
Evaluating Kinetic Energy Harvesting – Natik
What are kinetic energy harvesters – A device that utilizes human movement to create electrical current. We have covered this topic in the past, and it has become a bit controversial. Is it possible to build an exoskeleton that is energy positive to charge batteries and reduce the load burden on the soldiers in the field? A rechargeable battery that is charged during a deployment is far lighter than a soldier carrying all the batteries they will need for deployment. The weight of the wearable device with the energy charging mechanism, the weight of the rechargeable battery and additional energy expended running the device must be lower than the weight of regular batteries.
The presentation used two completely different devices that were evaluated in a similar way. Note that these were early prototypes, with constrained evaluation time and the released numbers do not indicate if the latest version of these products has been accepted or rejected. The two cases were for an energy harvester backpack that charges a battery as it swings up and down with each step and the Bionic Power Knee which charges a battery with each rotation of the knee during walking. The importance of this presentation was not the reported numbers, but the explanation of how the devices were tested and compared, giving everyone in the room a better idea of how the process works.
Standards & Test Methods, Update
Without standards, communication between exoskeleton stakeholders becomes difficult. Without test methods, buyers like BMW have a challenging time comparing one exoskeleton to another. Having established standards and test methods, if done correctly, will benefit the entire industry. The Wearable Robotics Association and NIST gave a joint presentation to update the conference attendees on the progress being done both within the U.S. and internationally.
More to do
Like last year, the WearRA conference was divided into separate paths. For each Breakout Session listed, there is at least one other counterpart. For WearRAcon17 day two, attendees also had the chance to attend sessions on Sensors/Components/Materials, a presentation on Neural Control of Powered Devices or visit the booths by sellers like Maxon Motors and AlterG.
Furthermore, there were presentations by REX Bionics and B-Temia. The representatives of both companies shared the history of their journey of evolving from concept to full businesses, new projects, and vision for the future.
Finally, the day ended with an evening reception where researchers, buyers, and consultants from across the world shared stories and ideas. But while they were busy networking or just having fun, the judges were deliberating on who should be the winner of the Innovation Challenge and the votes were being counted to determine the who has the “fan favorite” project. Who won? Stay tuned to find out more about the presenters and the winner(s) of the WearRA Innovation Challenge 2017!