Exoskeletons have moved from science fiction to reality, helping people in various sectors to perform physically challenging tasks and overcome obstacles.
- French scientists have made mind-controlled limbs a reality
- Samsung’s exoskeletons make walking easier
- Sarcos provides soldiers with superhuman strength
- Russian army’s exoskeleton is ready for combat use
- The construction industry is eager to adopt exoskeletons
- Hyundai’s Vest Exoskeleton makes overhead tasks less tiresome
- LG combines robotic suits and AI
- Atoun’s robotic devices help users lift and walk
- The Auberon exoskeleton helps firefighters in high-rise buildings
- Elevate allows people with bad knees to enjoy skiing
- Ever closer cooperation between people and machines
From orthopaedic clinics to factory floors to military centres, scientists and engineers are racing to make human bodies stronger and faster. These efforts have yielded impressive results, with exoskeletons taking centre stage. As robotic mechanisms that give wearers increased strength and endurance, they’re used in multiple industries and are set to become a $4-billion-worth market by 2026. And from passive devices to battery-powered solutions, exoskeletons come in all sizes and shapes.
Full-body exosuits help paralysed people take their first steps and also support workers when they’re moving heavy boxes or performing overhead tasks. Soldiers and firefighters benefit from these technologies, too, as they’re able to walk faster and carry more items. And the construction industry, notorious for its challenging working conditions, is warming up to the use of exoskeletons to help employees avoid injuries and pain. Engineers have a lot of work ahead of them to perfect these robotic solutions, but there are already many exciting use cases that highlight the potential of this technology.
French scientists have made mind-controlled limbs a reality
Scientists at the University of Grenoble and the Clinatec biomedical research centre have developed a brain-controlled exoskeleton that was successfully tested in lab settings. The first user of this device was a 28-year-old patient who suffered from an injury that left him paralysed from the shoulders down. To take part in the test, he was implanted with two sensors in his head to record and translate brain waves that transmit movement commands. The man then spent two years practicing in a virtual reality (VR) environment, moving digital limbs, while deep learning AI was monitoring his brain waves, trying to correlate specific signals with arm and leg movements.
Once the training was over, the scientists equipped the patient with an exoskeleton suit. The AI software successfully converted brain waves into commands that the machine understood, enabling various types of movements. The man was able to move his hands and rotate his wrists. He was also walking, covering a distance of 145 metres with 480 steps during 39 sessions. The exoskeleton was attached to the roof to stabilise the patient and prevent the machine from falling down. And in the next stage, the scientists hope to enable patients to walk without a ceiling suspension system.
Samsung’s exoskeletons make walking easier
Samsung also wants to help people walk. This South Korean company developed the Gait Enhancing Motivational System (GEMS), a series of exoskeletons that assist the knees, ankles, and hips. The GEMS-H exoskeleton, which supports the hips, also corrects posture, increases walking pace by almost 20 per cent, and helps users climb stairs. It can also add resistance and be used in fitness workouts and injury rehabilitation sessions. And as it weighs only 2.1 kg, GEMS-H is comfortable to wear and it can save wearers up to 23 per cent of energy during walking.
This exoskeleton is one of Samsung’s first projects in the walking support market, and success is far from guaranteed. Many other companies like ReWalk, Ekso, and SuitX offer equally efficient products. But as the demand for exoskeletons increases, it’s likely that more businesses will offer competing solutions. This is good news for end consumers who will benefit from innovative tools that make walking and rehabilitation easier and assist in physically demanding jobs. What’s more, Samsung announced that it will use AI technology to create ever better robots, which promises to make GEMS more useful.
Sarcos provides soldiers with superhuman strength
Sarcos Robotics, a US-based developer of robotics and electromechanical devices, plans to release the first deliveries of its Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton in 2020. The development of the device took 17 years and $175 million, and the company partnered with the US Department of Defense, as well as private companies, to complete the project. The exoskeleton improves the strength, endurance, and safety of its users. It has a strength gain of 20 to 1, making wearers who weigh 100 kilograms feel as though they weighs five kilos, allowing them to easily carry items of up to 90 kilograms for a long period of time. The suit is powered by batteries that last eight hours on a single charge, while getting in or out of the device takes around a minute.
The US Air Force and the US Navy are both impressed with Guardian XO. Sarcos hosted military representatives at its headquarters in Salt Lake City and demonstrated how the exoskeleton empowers soldiers. During a field demonstration, an operator was able to mount a bomb weighing 56 kilograms under an aircraft wing, lift 50 kg of ammunition cans, and attach a tire weighing 38 kg to a truck axle – all of which was accomplished without additional strain and at normal speed. Dr. Alok Das, a senior scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Center for Rapid Innovation, says that “these wearable robots can enhance the capabilities and safety of our soldiers. The Guardian XO brings science fiction to reality.”
Russian army’s exoskeleton is ready for combat use
The Russian military is also investing in robotic technology. Its K-2 exoskeleton was displayed at the Army-2019 military-technical forum in Moscow, with soldiers wearing the device while walking and firing a machine gun. The exercise demonstrated that, unlike the exoskeletons developed by its American counterparts, the Russian prototype is ready for active military use. Lukas Andriukaitis, a research associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) of the Atlantic Council, writes that Moscow is ahead of its competitors in deploying the system into its units.
And photos analysed by DFRL show that combat engineers used K-2 during demining operations in Palmyra, Syria. The device helped them to carry up to 50 additional kilograms without suffering fatigue. But Russian engineers are working on an even more advanced exoskeleton with futuristic design. The so-called Ratnik-3 model is expected to be deployed by 2025 and consists of full-body protection and helmet. It remains unclear whether this system is to be used in combat roles or in combat support operations.
The construction industry is eager to adopt exoskeletons
Construction workers have to frequently walk, bend, and lift heavy objects. These repetitive tasks lead to accidents and overexertion injuries that cost US companies alone around $15 billion in compensation each year. What’s more, workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders and even permanent injuries that prevent them from doing their jobs. Construction companies are motivated to tackle this problem, and exoskeletons could offer much-needed relief. These devices help people lift heavy items and move with ease. And their prices are falling, too. The Chairless Chair and the EksoWorks Vest exoskeletons, for instance, cost around $5,000 each, well below full-body devices used in the healthcare sector.
Robotic companies are developing a range of wearables that the construction industry might find interesting. There are mounted arm exosuits like EksoZeroG that enable operators to hold heavy tools. Exoskeletons can also provide back support by reducing pressure on the back muscles and ensuring users maintain correct posture, reducing repetitive-stress injuries. And workers who often lift heavy items in a factory line will also benefit, as robotic suits provide shoulder and arm support. Squatting can be easier as well, as lightweight devices help users crouch or stand by acting as ‘chairs’. Exoskeletons are a promising solution for the construction industry, but companies are still cautious with deploying these technologies on a large scale, waiting for the results of smaller tests carried out in production plants.
Hyundai’s Vest Exoskeleton makes overhead tasks less tiresome
And although machines are often doing difficult factory operations, hard labour is still the norm for many workers. In Hyundai’s automotive factories, for instance, employees in assembly lines spend long hours on overhead tasks, fitting exhausts and brake tubes to passing vehicles. These tedious duties lead to pain and overuse injuries. To help workers overcome these challenges, the South Korean car maker developed two types of exoskeletons, including the Chairless Exoskeleton that supports the wearer’s knees and the Vest Exoskeleton (VEX) that reduces neck and back strain.
And Hyundai recently unveiled an upgraded VEX device that weighs 2.5 kg and is around 40 per cent lighter than competing products. The company explained that the weight reduction was achieved by removing the battery and using a passive, spring-based system of force assistance. Workers wear the robotic suit like a backpack, slipping their arms through shoulder straps. DongJin Hyun, the head of the robotics team at Hyundai Motor Group, says that “VEX gives workers greater load support, mobility, and adaptability when operating in overhead environments. Workers will also appreciate how light VEX is to wear and work with.” The product is expected to enter commercial production by the end of 2019, with Hyundai considering to offer VEX to customers across the world.
LG combines robotic suits and AI
LG Electronics is another South Korean company interested in robotic technologies. The electronics and consumer goods giant developed the CLOi SuitBot exoskeleton that helps workers lift and lower heavy items for a prolonged period without fatigue and injuries. Initially unveiled at the IFA tech expo in Berlin and then upgraded to the current, lighter version, LG’s exosuit consists of a lower back unit and support pieces branching off to each leg.
It’s automatically activated when the wearer bends at a 65-degree angle and disengages when the person returns to an upright posture. The CLOi can operate up to four hours for every hour of charging, making it an ideal solution for workers at manufacturing and storage facilities. And the device even uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn users’ habits and optimise power and movements.
Atoun’s robotic devices help users lift and walk
Atoun, owned by the Japanese electronics giant Panasonic, also created exoskeletons that ease walking and lifting. The Model Y, shaped like an upside-down Y and weighing 4.5 kg, is carried as a backpack that’s connected to the chest and thighs. It relies on two electric motors to provide 10 kg force of support to users who carry heavy objects. The device operates in three modes. When users want to straighten after taking an object, the Model Y switches to the Assist mode, pulling the user’s body up. If the person leans forward to put the item down, the exoskeleton activates the Brake mode that supports the waist, and when they walk, the machine’s motors are turned off, as the Walk mode minimises resistance.
Atoun is also developing a lower-body exoskeleton called HIMICO for those who mainly need walking support. The device is still in prototype form, but the company claims its product provides a power boost of 19 per cent when walking uphill and 17.8 per cent when climbing stairs. Also, it helps people move faster over rough terrain. And HIMICO adapts its performance to users as it learns about their habits and variables like posture.
The Auberon exoskeleton helps firefighters in high-rise buildings
Fighting fires in high-rise buildings is a challenging task. Firefighters have to climb stairs in a burning tower, carrying up to 40 kg of equipment such as breathing apparatus, nozzles, hose lines, power tools, and other items. And this can take a toll even on well-prepared first responders. But thanks to a robotic suit developed by the specialist vehicle manufacturer Trigen Automotive and Singapore’s Civil Defence Force, putting down fires and saving human lives will be much easier.
The duo produced an exoskeleton called Auberon that makes carrying heavy items much easier. The device is powered by two 6.8 litre compressed air tanks, which enable firefighters to go up and down 12 storeys of stairs three times with all of their equipment. Auberon’s users also have their hands free and can tackle the fire more efficiently. Pressure on the shoulders and back is reduced by passing the weight to the ground via the footplate. If eventually things go wrong and firefighters have to escape the inferno on short notice, they can remove the exoskeleton using a quick release mechanism.
Elevate allows people with bad knees to enjoy skiing
Millions of people enjoy skiing as their favourite recreational activity. But those with knee issues or muscle fatigue might think twice before sliding down mountains. Fortunately, the San Francisco-based Roam Robotics developed Elevate, an exoskeleton for skiers, which consists of braces that connect ski boots and a small backpack via pneumatically-powered actuators placed on thighs. The device offloads up to 30 per cent of users’ weight and reduces pressure on their knees and quads, absorbing shocks and various impacts. Built-in sensors and software activate the system only when needed, although users can set the power and sensitivity manually, too.
Elevate still isn’t available in retail sales. Instead, customers can rent the exoskeleton at several resort locations that have partnered with the tech startup, and daily rentals start at $109. Those who plan to buy the product can join the waitlist and start saving money, as the device will cost anywhere from $2,000 to $2,500. Roam Robotics is also developing medical exoskeletons for people who have suffered knee injuries, as well as robotic solutions geared towards military use.
Ever closer cooperation of people and machines
Exoskeletons augment human capabilities and provide users with more strength and endurance. And although scientists are far from creating the next Iron Man, the benefits of robotic technologies are obvious. From medicine and military to industry and sports, exosuits play an increasingly important role and assist wearers in walking, lifting, bending, skiing, and many other activities. However, the future of robotics is filled with obstacles, and engineers will have to find a way to make cutting-edge products more affordable to ordinary citizens. But these and other challenges are likely to be overcome as AI and other technologies enable ever closer cooperation of people and robots.