Most people associate exosuits with superheroes like Ironman or science fiction movies like Alien. However, functioning exoskeletons – literally meaning external skeletons – are quickly becoming reality, promising to deliver strength and capabilities to help people overcome very different challenges.
The biggest driver for developing exoskeleton technology has been its potential military applications. The latest iterations allow the soldier to carry 17 times more weight than normal, giving a solid boost to both strength and stamina when soldiers are in the field. In addition, current concepts such as the TALOS are also including added protection, cooling and heating, making it more than just a strength-booster.
But advances in exoskeleton technology are by no means limited to concepts developed for military application. In fact, an increasing number of companies and researchers are creating wearables that enable the users to perform different – often very specific – tasks.
From heavy lifting to repetitive tasks
One of the challenges in developing an exosuit suitable for military use is that it needs to be very versatile, providing strength as well as high mobility in different settings. For the increasing number of companies developing exoskeletons for industrial use, that’s not always as big an issue.
One example of this is the HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) exoskeleton, developed by Japanese company Cyberdyne and currently being used by employees in Japanese airports to assist lifting of heavy loads The small suit weighs just around three kg and is powered by a battery with enough power to last three hours. Moreover, the HAL works by reading bio-electrical-signals from the wearer to decide which movement pattern to perform.
A number of other companies are testing out similar concepts for different tasks requiring physical strength, such as warehouse handlers or forestry workers, while other, often smaller solutions, are being developed to help take out the strain out of repetitive tasks, for example in assembly lines.
Helping disabled back on their feet
Another thriving area of research is developing exoskeletons to help people with paralysis, muscular dystrophy or similarly disabling disorders. Rather than super strength, these exosuits are aiming to give the wearer the ability to move around on their own.
And some of the solutions coming out of that research are nothing short of impressive. On example, the ReWalk 6.0, is presented as robotically-assisted walking system for people with spinal cord injury and has recently received approval in USA by the FDA. The system works by sensing subtle changes in the wearer’s center of gravity, for example responding to a forward tilt of the upper body by performing a forward step.
A number of other projects are also showing exciting results in their attempts to help injured people back on their feet. For example, researchers at UCLA are combining exoskeleton units with non-invasive, electrical spinal stimulation to help paralyzed patients regain enough control of their legs to operate the exosuit.Other research projects are taking a different route, working on various kinds of solutions to let the wearer control the movements of an exoskeleton directly with his or her thoughts.
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