“When the greater public thinks about exoskeletons, they generally think of the robotic suits you might find in a Marvel comic,” said Samantha, COO of Open Bionics. “The reality is that with exoskeletons, we are just scratching the surface of this technology!”
Ideally, a robotic suit would be light, strong, flexible, agile, affordable, and have hours worth of power. However, this isn’t realistic at the moment. If you want a strong robotic device, you need decent motors which are heavy and expensive. If you have strong motors, you need decent power, but batteries are also heavy, take up room, and they won’t last for hours. So, your suit can’t be light. For the exoskeleton in the Iron Man movies to exist in reality a number of technologies will need to advance and improve. The ultimate exoskeleton is dependent upon the progression of these other technologies.
“My 2 cents about the exoskeleton/prostheses market is less on rehab and enabling the disabled, but instead on augmenting either in full (skeletons) or in part (gloves, fingers, feet, legs),” said Frank Tobe, Editor for The Robot Report. “The disabled market is difficult whereas worker augmentation represents big money – the gloves alone could be a multi-billion dollar business very soon.”
“For example, General Motors, which has been trying to adapt their NASA Robonaut hand to factory worker assistance, has partnered with BioServo Technologies, who developed a therapeutic glove, to make a factory-worker glove for workers who regularly grasp things. There are many other glove makers doing the same thing. Another example is Japan’s health ministry through Cyberdyne and other agencies attempting to empower seniors with exoskeletons to help them garden (squatting, reaching, kneeling and lifting) and be mobile with non-medical partial skeletons. Many university labs are working on variations on this,” said Frank.
Are these technologies about human augmentation (read super-human powers), or really about empowering those that are disabled, weakened?
“I don’t see how it makes sense to give people super-human powers, aside from improving endurance (when carrying loads – HULC is an example),” said Maciej Pietrusinski, President and Founder for AndrosRobotics. “We already have examples of exoskeletons (non-antropomorphic) which give people the ability to traverse the landscape and cover 150 km in 2 hours (bicycle), and it does so without exposing our bodies to harm (except when we fall off the bike).
“An exoskeleton that is meant to give us faster-running abilities would also subject our body to injury. Our bones get stronger with time as they are subject to higher stresses, partially as a response to our muscles growing stronger as we mature, and donning an exoskeleton to give us super-human speed or strength could result in an injury. So empowering the disabled is a much better use of exoskeletons,” said Maciej.
“These technologies are about restoring functionality to the human body,” said Samantha. “They are robotic tools designed to offer a greater degree of independence and a higher quality of life to people who are differently able. However, some of these devices enhance or go beyond the abilities of the human body. For example, some of the new bionic wrists will be able to turn 360 degrees. This is an interesting area of augmentation and indicative of future artificial limbs that will go beyond merely offering to restore functionality.”
Restoring functionality and living “as a normal two armed person” is what amputee Melissa Loomis states, in an interview on Motherboard. The technology being looked at called Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), interprets and converts signals from the body’s nervous system to motion. When the MPF interacts with an object, signals from over 100 sensors sends info back to the brain, creating a sense of touch. The pay-off is that Melissa will be able to access sensory information in her prosthetic. The arm learns how to understand what you want to do, as opposed to, you learning how to control the arm.
Who are the providers of these technologies?
Here is a list of companies in the business of advancing robotic or robotic-augmented prosthetics. [If you know of companies not included in the list, please send that information to [email protected]. Thanks.]
Axo Suits (RO)
The Robohub Roundtable thinks that areas in Industrial; Healthcare 1) rehabilitation 2) disabilities; Military; Entertainment (sports); and Services (renting exoskeletons to help at home) are all areas that could be considered for applicable for advancements in prosthetics, especially exoskeletons.