The Wearable Robotics Association once again did what it does best, connect exoskeleton, exosuit, wearable robotics, and powered clothing developers, consumers, evaluators and researchers in a multi-day global event! In its 5th year, WearRAcon 20 took a brand new digital format to fulfill its goal of bringing the exoskeleton community together.
Regardless of the change in format, the WearRAcon series continued much as it normally would with an opening by Dr. Joseph Hitt, Executive Director of WearRA. Dr. Hitt, or “Joe”, as most people refer to him made three main points during his opening remarks:
- The exoskeleton industry is diversifying
- There is work on the WearRA-Fraunhofer Protocols, guidelines (not standards) for testing back and shoulder exos (more on this topic during Day Two)
- WearRA Europe this year is scheduled to be held in conjunction with WeRob on October 13-16
And with this, we were off to the races! An eight-hour marathon of fast-passed wearable robotics discussions.
The opening keynote speaker this year was Rich Mahoney, CEO and Founder of Seismic.
Rich Mahoney, Ph.D. Engineering, Cambridge University in Rehabilitation Robotics, had his first experience commercializing a rehabilitation robot as US GM for Motorika stroke therapy, an Israeli startup. Dr. Mahoney was also the executive director of SRI Robotics, founding president of Silicon Valley Robotics, and CEO of Seismic. His early start with rehabilitation robotics showed him that there is a need for more companies to translate R&D work to products. Rich Mahoney expressed a feeling of disappointment in the overall lack of proliferation of rehabilitation robotics in the last 30 years. His work with Motorika showed him that in rehabilitation you have to be very specific about the purpose of the product: tool, diagnostic device, assistive device or therapeutic device.
The rehab market is really three markets: home, acute (hospital), sub-acute (clinic). Rich Mahoney noticed that while there is market penetration in the acute market the home market had the least penetration which shaped his thinking on how to run Seismic.
The DARPA Warrior Web project gave birth to the SUPER Flex and the Flex Controls, Flex Drive and Flex Grip which were the origins of Seismic. (see our previous coverage on the subject here). After some exploration, it was determined that mobility can really impact the quality of life. Typically, the available products are canes and walkers (a stick and a wheel). Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with using these assistive products and many people will instead choose to stay home.
Mobility comes from the core says Dr. Mahoney. Extreme muscle weakness in the hips and lower back impacts mobility. This “core power assist” could also be applied to a larger market for the general population. “People don’t wear robots, they wear clothes” has created a different concept of Powered Clothing: not an exoskeleton but nearly invisibly modified clothing that still provides active support. Bringing together a team that can provide this robotics solution required the merging of robotics, data science, and apparel. Seismic is a multidisciplinary collaboration led company, with the main product going through multiple iterations over the years.
The positioning of the consumer-facing product has required a lot of thought on materials, colors, texture, fashion and variety. It is a “Powered Clothing Line” vs. some previous ideas like “robotic underwear”.
The Powered Clothing can be seen as an IoT (Internet of Things) product that can in time, be further integrated and combined with other wearables (such as an Apple Watch or gaming consoles). Potentially, this is only the beginning. Consumer adoption, however, will likely take time.
The presenter sees significant potential for new applications such as worker safety and is currently in a market entry partnership with Cintas (supplier of work uniforms). Early results show a 20% reduction in perceived exertion and a 60% reduction in work-related pain but this is only scratching the surface on testing.
Conceptually, this is a technology that can become broadly used similar to how a pair of boots can be used for gardening. Mobility impacts the cost of aging and it makes sense to design a product for it.
Currently, Seismic is pursuing a lease model. This was a topic that came up repeatedly in the many presentations during the day: controlling the cost of ownership and reducing the entry cost using a lease vs. purchase model.
Rich Mahoney acknowledges that we don’t know what the impact COVID-19 could have on the exoskeleton industry and hopes that we all stay safe.
Sessions and Demos at WearRAcon 20 Virtual, Day One:
Alan Asbeck, Director of the Assistive Robotics Lab at Virginia Tech shared updates on his lab (famous for the V1 exoskeleton being tested at Lowe’s). The new model, V2 has some ingenious design modifications such as strategically placed disengage mechanics, combination gas and die spring assembly and a variable cable clutch. Somehow, this was only a part of his presentation as he proceeded to show images and concepts of a new shoulder support device based on the principle of a pantograph.
The theme of back-support exos continued with a presentation by Karl Zelik, Vanderbilt University/HeroWear. Karl Zelik used his time to debunk common myths, musings, and misconceptions on back-assist wearables. The presenter felt strongly that it is the responsibility of the entire community to take time and educate on exoskeletons as disinformation can only hurt the industry.
The newcomer to the exoskeleton industry, HeroWear used the digital stage to reveal its first commercial product, the Apex! The Apex is a modular textile-based exosuit for lift assistance that uses a clutch mechanism to engage and disengage the device.
The spotlight demo by HeroWear was followed by five presentations focused on:
- STATE OF AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY EXOSKELETON USAGE; UTILIZATION AT TOYOTA & KIA MOTORS Marisol Barrero, Toyota Motor North America and Mohamed Badawy, KIA Motors
- FUTURE REHABILITATION WITH TECHNOLOGIES AND ROBOTICS Conor Walsh, Harvard Wyss (who revealed a light-weight ankle system for the first time at WearRAcon 20) and Ásgeir Alexandersson, Össur
- EXOSKELETON UTILIZATION AT GENERAL MOTORS & BOEING Ryan Porto, GM; Chris Reid; Boeing; and Kadon Kyte, Boeing
- HIGH PERFORMANCE/LIGHTWEIGHT EXOSKELETONS Zach Lerner, Northern Arizona University and Hao Su, City College of New York
- FDA REGULATIONS OF WEARABLE ROBOTICS Kristin Davenport, Covington & Burling LLP
In addition to the spotlight demo by HeroWear, Dr. Soenke Roessing, Head of Industrials at Ottobock used the digital stage to present the Peaxo Back – a passive hip exoskeleton for work and industry. The Paexo Back has an intuitive clutch mechanism that disengages when people are walking, sitting or climbing stairs. The support level can be changed with the grey button on the side. There will be a big US Launch event at Ottobock’s HQ in Austin, Texas at an unspecified date, hopefully, this year. At that time, more data and studies are scheduled to be released.
Ottobock is working with ASTM International on an exoskeleton implementation guide: storage, cleaning, safety, maintenance, etc… The company is focused on the customer experience and will provide three tiers of service: PaexoCare, PaexoCare+ and Paexo Trade-in as pack offers that follow the lifecycle of the Paexo Shoulder.
Finally, the WearRAcon 20 Virtual Day One concluded in much the same way it always does, with a happy hour! Those attending grabbed their favorite drink and split up into random groups, speed dating style, to discuss the common themes from the first day.
What were the common themes from the first day? Surprisingly, even having attended each WearRAcon there was virtually no duplication of content from previous years. The presenters had new updates, devices, and answers to questions posed from previous years. Common themes included but were not limited to:
- Designing exoskeletons to fit women
- Revealing all the hidden costs of implementing/owning an exoskeleton
- Greater focus on lightweight exoskeletons and exosuits
- Lessons learned by early adopters
- Maintaining a dialogue between developers and users
- More realistic testing that is getting closer to “real world” implementations
The event management team: Elizabeth, Shelby Andrea, Amy and Carolyn made the impossible possible and successfully transformed WearRAcon into a virtual conference. Day One went without a single technical glitch, save for one slide getting stuck for about 15 seconds at the end of the day. While it was unfortunate not to be able to try out devices and have hallway conversations, this was the first year ever attendees had a real opportunity to attend all the sessions that interested them and everyone had a front-row seat!
WearRAcon 20 Virtual continues March 31, 2020, and registration is still open: link to the registration page