Last May, the exoskeleton, ergonomics, and human performance expert Matthew Marino had the opportunity to travel to Canada and meet with the team at Bionic Power. Bionic Power is best known for its efforts in creating an energy harvesting device that seeks to reduce the number of batteries that dismounted soldiers need to carry. The company is also working on a pediatric smart orthosis that can help children with cerebral palsy (CP) walk more efficiently, improve biomechanics, and reduce fatigue. In this article, Matt Marino shares his initial impressions of walking, climbing up and down stairs, and moving on uneven terrain, while carrying a 30-40 lbs. backpack with the Amplify augmentation exoskeleton:
The Amplify combines elements of Bionic Power’s energy harvesting exoskeleton with those of a powered knee exoskeleton (not all that dissimilar from a hybrid car using regenerative breaks). It straps around your lower leg and thigh and attaches to a hip belt, preventing the device from sliding down the leg with gravity or rotating too much around the leg. “It was not very difficult at all to put it on and take it off,” reflects Matt. “I could probably put it on in less than a minute and take it off in less than 30 seconds with a little practice.”
Paraphrasing Matt’s initial impressions: “The Amplify exoskeleton was quite powerful. It resembles other active lower body exoskeletons for walking, like the Lockheed Martin ONYX and the Keeogo by B-Temia. It was strong but adjustable for how much torque it could provide, how quickly the torque could ramp up or down, and the range of motion. For a quick and dirty test, while walking on a treadmill with the Amplify device, I pulled out my phone to see my heart rate from my Whoop 4.0. I walked with the exoskeleton turned on for a few minutes, letting my heart rate settle in for that intensity. Then I turned the exoskeleton off, repeating this process about half a dozen times. When the Amplify device was turned off, my heart rate went up, and my heart rate went down when it was turned on. On an inclined treadmill, the activity got easier when I turned the exoskeleton on, and when I turned the exoskeleton off, I had to work harder. There was a clear, for me at least, metabolic benefit. Of course, a soldier has to carry much more than 30-40 lbs, but this experience gave me enough of a sense to understand the potential for how helpful this type of device can be.”
Matt also had the opportunity to try out the Amplify outside: “We walked up and down the street, found a small but steep hill to move around on, and climbed up and down stairs several times, and the assistance was very obvious. It was good at helping me climb up and down the hills and stairs, it didn’t interfere with my ability to balance and move on uneven terrain, and when I turned the exoskeleton off, I could feel the difference. I could feel how much assistance it provided with each step. There is no better way to understand an exoskeleton like the Amplify device than to put it on and feel what it can do.”
Opportunities for Improvement:
Comfort and control are two major areas where the Amplify exoskeleton can be improved. “I wanted to have some capability to adjust it, or have the machine adjust itself,” elaborates Matt. “For example, when I was on level ground, it felt like too much assistance, and I wanted to turn it down a little because it would have been more comfortable. It would also be nice to improve the control based on the type of activity. If the Amplify has to be comfortable enough to be worn by soldiers on long missions that can span days, it needs to know when to ramp up and ramp down the level of assistance it provides and when to become “invisible” to its users. In the civilian market, the Amplify must be comfortable while doing heavy physical work, for example, utility or forestry work in remote locations, otherwise people will not use it. So comfort and control will be essential to gain acceptance from users, and the Bionic Power team knows that.”
The Amplify exoskeleton has its roots in Bionic Power’s energy harvester exoskeleton, which Matt also had the chance to wear. “The energy harvester fits closely around the leg like the Amplify device, says Matt, and it was a nice fit. Again, more work can be done on the adjustability to make the fit more comfortable. Especially for longer use (8 hours and longer). The exoskeleton could potentially be made more transparent as well. There is a little resistance to movement when you walk in it while it is turned on because the device is doing something to harvest your energy. It’s very subtle. You can feel it when you turn it off, the device becomes a little easier to move with, so it is interesting to feel this difference. It was the opposite of what I expected to feel at first. Overall, it was impressive how form-fitting and snug these exoskeletons could be on my body, which has many benefits.”
It is not likely that energy demands on dismounted soldiers will go down anytime soon. It is more likely to increase. If the machine can meet (or complement) the energy needs of soldiers, it may be able to serve a purpose and have a potential adoption pathway in the defense industry.
“The team at Bionic Power were a pleasure to work with, super kind, friendly, and great hosts,” concludes Matt. “I appreciated them letting me try out all of their exoskeletons, and I understand that these are only prototypes, not the final products. I’m looking forward to seeing where they can go from here.”
This article does not endorse Bionic Power or any company products. This work is purely informative. It captures the visit of an exoskeleton and ergonomics expert to Bionic Power’s HQ and his observations and impressions as retold later.
This article was completed with the insights and contributions of Matthew Marino, PT, MSPT, CPE, CSCS, TSAC-F, a founding Partner of the ASTM Exo Technology Center of Excellence, and co-owner of Prime Performance LLC. Matt has over 20 years of experience in rehabilitation, health and fitness, ergonomics, and the design, testing, use, and implementation of wearable sensor and exoskeleton technologies (LinkedIn)