Imagine wearing a device that provides support while you move and amplifies your physical performance. That's the magic of an exoskeleton!
These wearable devices use a combination of robotics and biomechatronics to work alongside the user, enhancing their physical abilities. It's like having a personal assistant that makes you stronger and faster, without taking over your body's functionality.
Our story begins in Russia, back in 1890, when an innovative engineer named Nicholas Yagin developed a device that could assist movement using compressed gas bags. Little did he know, he had just invented the first exoskeleton-like device.
Yagin, Nicholas. "Apparatus for Facilitating Walking". U.S. Patent 440,684 was filed on February 11, 1890, and issued on November 18, 1890.
Fast forward to 1986, when Monty Reed, a US Army Ranger who had broken his back in a parachute accident, came across Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers. Years of hard work and perseverance paid off in 2005, when Reed wore the 12th prototype of the Lifesuit in a foot race, setting the speed record for walking in robot suits. This groundbreaking achievement paved the way for future innovations in exoskeleton technology, such as the Lifesuit prototype 14, which can walk 1.6 km on a full charge and lift 92 kg for the wearer.
Today, the rapidly growing robotic exoskeleton industry holds incredible potential to assist those with disabilities, improve worker safety and productivity, and enhance athletic performance. In 2014, Julian Pinto, who is completely paralyzed in his lower extremities, made history by kicking off the World Cup in Brazil with a robotic exoskeleton created by a team of more than 150 researchers.
As more use cases are developed in new industries, experts predict that the exoskeleton industry will be worth $1.8 billion by 2025.
Developments - Use Cases & Companies
The classification of exoskeletons depends on where they are worn on the body and how they are powered. There are three main types of exoskeletons: full body, upper extremity, and lower extremity.
Full body exoskeleton, is used for strength augmentation in the military and rehabilitation.
Upper-extremity exoskeleton, supports the arms and potentially the torso, and can be further classified into shoulder joints, elbow joints, the wrist, and fingers.
Lower-extremity exoskeleton, supports the legs and comes in different configurations like hip, knee, or ankle only, as well as hip-knee, knee-ankle, or hip-knee-ankle.
Imagine not being able to walk, run, or even stand up without assistance. For many individuals with spinal cord injuries, this is their reality. However, advances in technology are changing this reality by introducing exoskeletons as a viable option for mobility support.
When the neuromuscular and skeletal system's structural and functional properties are too limited to achieve mobilization with an orthosis, exoskeletons can serve as an alternative option. They are particularly useful for patients with complete paralysis. Powered exoskeletons can take over most of the active muscle work, allowing for greater mobility and a higher quality of life for individuals with mobility impairments.
Various prototype exoskeletons are currently under development, including the Ekso GT, which is the first exoskeleton approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for stroke patients. The German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence has also developed two general-purpose powered exoskeletons, CAPIO and VI-Bot, which are primarily for teleoperation.
The applications of exoskeleton technology are expanding beyond medical uses and are now being developed to enhance precision during surgery and to assist nurses in moving and carrying heavy patients.
When once there was Iron Man today thanks to advancements in exoskeleton technology, suited-enhanced soldiers are no longer just a thing of fiction.
Evan Ackerman, 2015. https://spectrum.ieee.org/darpa-tests-batterypowered-exoskeletons-on-real-soldiers
One such example is the Sarcos Guardian XO, a marvel of engineering powered by lithium-ion batteries. Designed specifically for reducing fatigue and military logistics applications, this exoskeleton is a game-changer in the world of modern warfare. However, even with the Guardian XO's advanced features, the US Army's TALOS exoskeleton project was put on hold in 2019. This setback did not stop others from continuing to develop exoskeleton technology.
Lockheed Martin's ONYX suit aims to support soldiers in performing tasks that are "knee-intensive", such as crossing difficult terrain. While exoskeletons have been found to reduce a soldier's response time, not all models have been successful in the field. However, a passive exoskeleton model designed and evaluated with the help of over 100 soldiers at three Army posts completed field testing in May 2022 with high approval.
The latest in military-grade exoskeleton technology is the Soldier Assistive Bionic Exosuit for Resupply (SABER). This lightweight, flexible accessory can be worn by soldiers while they move heavy machinery or artillery around, solving a specific problem without getting in the way. As technology continues to advance, the possibilities of exoskeleton technology in the military are endless. It may not be Iron Man, but suited-enhanced soldiers are now a reality and are changing the face of modern warfare.
In the fast-paced world of manufacturing and logistics, worker safety is of the utmost importance. Injuries and fatigue-related errors can cause significant losses in productivity and morale. That's why companies are turning to cutting-edge technology to assist their workers and minimize the risks associated with physically demanding tasks.
These tasks can be divided into two categories:
exoskeletons for upper-limb, assist with shoulder flexion-extension movements
exoskeletons for lumbar support, help workers perform manual lifting tasks.
For these exoskeletons to be widely adopted, they must meet several criteria. They need to be lightweight, comfortable, safe, and minimally disruptive to the environment. Single-joint exoskeletons are also preferred over full-body powered suits for some applications, as they are better suited for specialized tasks such as nuclear power plant maintenance.
Among the companies that have paved the way in developing these technologies, Ekso Bionics stands tall. This California-based firm has been at the forefront of manufacturing and developing powered exoskeleton bionic devices for the market. Another major player in this field is Hyundai Motor Company, a global brand that has achieved many world-firsts in the exoskeleton industry. Meanwhile, SuitX is making strides in developing products that are designed to reduce workers' fatigue, improve mobility, and bring comfort by supporting weight.
The Future Going Forward Faster and Stronger
With all these companies leading the charge in developing exoskeleton technology, the future of industrial, medical, and military work could be drastically transformed in the next few decades.
Being in the midst of a developing and rapidly expanding industry, there's always something new to learn about exoskeletons, with the emergence of new exoskeletons or novel use cases. It's the charm of this industry that just as you think you have learned everything, something new comes along and keeps the excitement going.