Powered Exoskeletons Make the Jump from Sci-fi, to Plain Sci

Published: 6 October 2016
Welcome to the future of human function.

Welcome to the future of human function.

Ekso Bionics was founded in 2005 and is a prominent developer of exoskeleton solutions that increase human potential by supporting or heightening strength, endurance and mobility across medical, industrial and defense applications.

Originally, the full-body suits were first developed in 2007 as the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) The company called these suits ExoHiker and ExoClimber. They had a carrying capacity of 150 pounds.

In 2009 the development of HULC improved and was able to carry a 200-pound load which helped increase the range and length of tasks performed by someone wearing the suit. This is done by reducing the metabolic energy needed by the person to perform a task.

Additionally, in 2009 a licensing and development agreement was reached with Lockheed Martin, an American global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies company. Perhaps, one of the more compassionate roles Ekso Bionics has taken on is in the form of patient rehabilitation.

As recently as April 4, 2016 the company announced that they had received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market the Ekso GT robotic exoskeleton for use in the treatment of individuals who have suffered a stroke or have spinal cord injuries up to level C7.

According to the Spinal Cord Injury Info PagesQuadriplegic, Paraplegic & Caregiver Resources, “Researchers have estimated that, as of 2015, 12,500 new spinal cord injuries occur each year and between 240,000 and 337,000 people are currently living with SCI in the United States.

The average age of injury has moved from 29 years in the 1970’s to 42 years in 2015.” This approval also makes the Ekso GT suit the first exoskeleton approved by the FDA for treating stroke victims

It all started in 2010 when the then named Berkeley Bionics unveiled eLEGS, which stands for “Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System” This was another hydraulically powered exoskeleton system that according to an article in Popular Science, physical therapists can assist their patients strap their legs and fasten their waist into the brace of the exoskeleton.

Then, with the help of two crutches the patients can stand up from a sitting position, and are able to walk as soon as they feel comfortable. “Weight sensors in the suit perceive when the user shifts his or her weight forward, triggering the device to make a step.” The exoskeleton is designed to get patients moving around as soon as possible after an injury, which can make the recovery process smoother and faster.

In the year 2013, the Ekso GT had another developmental breakthrough called Smart Variable Assist, which allows patients to use as much of their own strength as possible when standing and walking with the machine. This is the only software feature commercially available that allows clinicians to dynamically enhance their patients’ strength and to intentionally target poor aspects of their gait while the patient walks.

Unlike other types of exoskeletons, the GT’s motors can be individually controlled, if one side of the body works well on its own. The suit can read how hard it is working to support the patient. A therapist can then read the information and adjust the controls accordingly to personalize the patient’s body movement.

Speed and strength potential is limitless with these devices.

Speed and strength potential is limitless with these devices.

It engages patients by challenging their abilities, balancing the physical effort they exert with the amount of help they need to achieve a more normalized gait.  This can be very influential for the patient, as it will help with gait training and lets the patient become more involved in the healing process.

At the present time, Ekso Bionics is focused on making their suits available to clinic and rehab markets. Thinking about buying one? Just to give an idea of how much to put away in a saving account for this life-sized piece of assistive technology, go read the article published in the online magazine Inverse called, The 5 Coolest Exoskeletons You Can old (Almost) Buy.

This article touches on a previous article which spotlighted Panasonic’s new Power Loader exoskeleton. This exoskeleton can help the person wearing it carry up to 33 additional pounds to go along with what they can already lift on their own.

As of this month, the article says, “companies can rent it out for about $5,700 (individuals likely can for $6,000, an ungodly insurance premium, and a very good explanation).”

The article then goes on to explain how the Power Loader isn’t the only option on the market, giving a list of five other companies with exoskeletons from around the world. Ekso Bionics, Ekso GT made the list of course.

Additionally, the article points out the suits newest version offers different degrees of motion with four different settings. The user can pick the setting based on how far they are in their own rehabilitation process.  “The idea is to wean off the more automatic-motion modes as patients get better on their own two feet.”

Ekso Bionics is no doubt doing great things in the medical field.  However, it has peaked interest in construction, factories, and distribution centers as well.  The company says their Industrial products ease the physical burdens of hard work needing to get done.

The benefits of the industrial products include: Reducing Worker Fatigue, Improving Worker Efficiency, Reducing Worker Injuries, Improving Work Quality, Increasing Worker Productivity and, Enhancing Worker Job Satisfaction.

There are systems available that enable construction workers to use heavy power tools with ease.

An example of a system is explained in a PDF which can be found here. The Ekso Aerial Zero G Arm is a multipurpose, lightweight system which can easily mount to Aerial Work Platform (AWP) rails and support a range of industrial tools. The arm bears the weight of all tools during a job task.  This is beneficial because safety is always a challenge facing the construction field.

While wearable technology is still fairly new in the construction industry, analysts at CGS Insights say that “shipments of smart wearables are estimated to grow from 9.7 million in 2013 to 135 million in 2018.” Construction companies are finding these new advancements very interesting.

An article written in readwrite industry and entrepreneur website talks about a list of products construction companies are starting to use. Items such as Redpoint Safety Vests that allow employees to request help at their specific location.

In addition, employees carrying the Redpoint badge are immediately alerted when entering pre-defined danger zones on jobsites. Also, actuators can be activated to slow or deactivate heavy equipment when badges enter within a specific radius.

XOEye glasses come equipped with a camera wired to the internet so experienced technicians can provide real-time feedback for new learners. That’s the best it can get, right? No, there’s more.

Construction professionals are fed exactly what their technicians see out on the field and can effectively communicate back and forth to accomplish a task.  Of course, no one can leave out the Exso suit. As explained earlier it can aid construction workers in lifting heavy loads and reduce the risk of injuries from muscle strain.

The tech firm DAQRI, based out of California has put a spin on the average construction helmet. They have developed the DAQRI Smart Helmet.

This helmet has a virtual visor which displays work instructions for workers to view what needs to be done within the context of their visible workspace.

Welcome to the future of humanity.

Welcome to the future of humanity.

Using a 4D system that DAQRI has created reduces training time and helps workers visualize the importance of the task at hand within the total scope of the job. “The helmet also supports 360 ° cameras, 3D mapping, and alphanumeric capture.

The potential for data mining, compliance optimization, and maintaining construction records is limitless with DAQRI.” Even car manufacturers are starting to use similar adaptions of an exoskeleton on their factory floor.

An article written in Automotive News highlights BMW’s auto plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina that hopes to use the “Esko vest” that Esko Bionics created to support factory workers as they operate in a factory line position.

Premium car rival Audi also has started using exoskeletal systems, “a carbon fiber chairless chair that lets line workers relax into a modified sitting position as they stand on the line.”

Constructing an enhanced assembly line can provide a competitive edge for automotive manufacturers like BMW by improving worker productivity.  This is especially true as workforce generations get older.

Exoskeletons could very well be the new norm for the upcoming workforce 20 years from now with its versatile uses. Ekso Bionics uses innovative, smart, and trusted technology.

The company’s goal is to strive to make a person’s life better and more fulfilling.

Whether they are helping someone who is recovering from a stroke or spinal cord injury to assisting companies in the workforce to provide them with ways their employees can comfortably be more proficient at their job, Ekso Bionics is there for the present and future.

One knows what the company will develop 3 to 5 years down the line.  One thing is for sure though they would love to share it with the world.

Kyle Aken


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