Human Augmentation, Exoskeleton Technology & ‘Open’ Health’
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Last week, Ekso Bionics announced the first delivery of Ekso GT, their latest robotic exoskeleton which enables individuals with lower extremity paralysis or weakness to stand and walk. The first Ekso GT was delivered to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. News about exoskeletons and the development of other human augmentation technologies continues to proliferate.
Human augmentation technologies have the potential to enhance our innate human abilities in many ways. For example, it could be used to replace missing limbs or correct physical disabilities. In fact, some of the latest prosthetic devices have now reached the stage where they offer equivalent or slightly improved functionality over human limbs.
Military organizations are now experimenting with a wide range of 1st generation human augmentation technologies, including exoskeletons that allow personnel to carry increased loads and perform at a higher level. These devices have the potential to be adapted for use in healthcare and many other industries.
Elderly people could benefit from powered human augmentation technology, such as powered exoskeletons, that can be used to assist wearers with simple walking and lifting activities, improving the health and quality of life for aging populations.
New implantable brain-machine interfaces have been developed and are being tested that are demonstrating that directly bridging the gap between brain and prosthetics devices are becoming a reality – allowing prosthetic devices to be directly integrated with the user’s body.
Neuro-enhancement technology under development could also provide superior memory recall or speed of thought for humans. Think of the possibilities for the those suffering from some form of dementia.
Powered exoskeletons consist primarily of an outer framework worn by a person coupled with a powered system of motors or hydraulics that delivers part of the energy needed for limb movement.
The main function of a powered exoskeleton is to assist the wearer by boosting their strength and endurance. To date, powered exoskeletons have primarily been designed and developed for use by the military.
Powered exoskeletons are now also being designed for use by firefighters and other rescue workers operating in dangerous situation. The medical field is another prime area for exoskeleton technology development and use. For example, it could be used to assist nurses in moving heavy patients. It could also be used by patients with major physical disabilities, missing limbs, and many who are currently wheelchair-bound.
Exoskeleton for the Military
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated development of exoskeletons in 2001 under the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program. Check out some of the following examples:
XOS Exoskeleton is a robotics suit being developed by Raytheon for the US Army. The XOS system was originally developed as the Wearable Energetically Autonomous Robot (WEAR) by Sarcos Research. The company was subsequently acquired by the defense contractor Raytheon in 2007.
The DARPA Warrior Web program aims to develop a soft, lightweight suit that would help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve Soldiers’ ability to efficiently perform their missions.
Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) is an un-tethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton developed by Ekso Bionics , under an exclusive licensing agreement with Lockheed Martin. It is intended to help soldiers in combat carry a load of up to 200 pounds at a top speed of 10 miles per hour for extended periods of time.
A light weight robotic exoskeleton is also being developed and tested by Harvard scientists for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) called the Soft ‘Exosuit’.
Exoskeletons in Medicine
Several companies have also created exoskeleton systems for use in medicine. For example, check out the following solutions:
The HULC System developed by Ekso Bionics for the military is also working on a modified version of the system for medical use. The Ekso Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System (eLEGS) is a hydraulically powered exoskeleton system that helps paraplegics to stand and walk. A variant of the system known as Mantis is being developed for use in other industries.
Cyberdyne has developed the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL-5), a wearable exoskeleton cyborg-type suit, that allows the wearer to lift 10 times as much as they normally could. It is expected to be applied in various fields such as rehabilitation support and physical training support in medical field, activities of daily living (ADL) support for disabled people. Cyberdyne’s HAL-5 system could also provide support for rescue workers at disaster sites.
Honda has been working on their Walk Assist & Body Support systems that is now being readied for the marketplace. It is designed for use in activities requiring extended standing or repetitive lower-body tasks.
ARGO Medical Technologies has partnered with innovative robotics experts YASKAWA Electric Corporation as it continues the global expansion of its ReWalk exoskeleton device which enables individuals with lower limb disabilities such as paraplegia to walk.
Exoskeletons & Open Source
Various organizations and projects teams have now tapped into the ‘open source’ movement and practices to collaborate, share, and speed up the development of a wide range of innovative human augmentation solutions, including exoskeleton systems. For example:
OpenExo is a project to build and program an open source assistive lower limb exoskeleton. Also visit the OpenExo Project on GitHub.
Open Prosthetics Project is producing useful innovations in the field of prosthetics and freely sharing the CAD designs, open source code, and open source hardware, e.g. Arduino boards.
Rehab Rex is designed and developed by Rex Bionics for use in rehabilitation centers to assist with the treatment of patients under their care.
Titan Arm is a robotic exoskeleton which was developed using low-cost manufacturing and production techniques to cut the cost dramatically. The project team used open source software to run the device and reduce development costs.
The development of human augmentation technology and exoskeletons is primed for significant growth over the coming decade(s). Think of the many benefits to the military, manufacturing, factories, healthcare, gaming, and many other industries. As we move into the next generation of this technology and become more aware of its potential, more and more actors are getting into the game – especially the IT industry.
If you’re looking for a hot new field to enter that will start to dominate the marketplace in the 2020-2030 timeframe, this is it.
For more detail, read the more detailed feature story posted on Open Health News (OHNews) entitled ” Human Augmentation, Exoskeleton Technology & ‘Open’ Health’