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The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

Posted June 23, 2015 9:37 AM by Bayes

The Future is Now (And Soon)

Every so often a remarkable, life changing device that we've anticipating for decades finally goes mainstream, often with little fanfare at the time. This is because the technology behind it developed incrementally, and without a pivotal breakthrough to point to, we tend not to notice these things. It happened with cell phones, fracking, organ transplants, computers, the internet, radio, etc. Now it's happening again with exoskeletons.

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider Claire Lomas. Claire, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a horse-riding accident in 2006, walked the 26.2 miles of the London Marathon with the aid of an exoskeleton. Remarkable, and yet this occurred in 2012 and since then the feat has been accomplished several more times by others in exoskeleton suits.

But exoskeletons are not just for medical applications. The military and industry have been looking into exoskeletons that make loads lighter or otherwise enhance human ability. For instance there is Lockheed Martin's HULC Exoskeleton. Or the Fortis Exoskeleton.

So you see, exoskeletons are already starting to appear in medical, industrial, and military applications. I've mentioned three but there are hundreds of exoskeletons being developed as we speak. Last year three exoskeleton companies went public and there are several more companies in the pipeline. The exoskeleton industry is predicted to have a compound annual growth rate of over 70% from 2015-2019.

Engineering360 Article

I recently wrote an article for Engineering360 about Exoskeletons. Here it is:

Exoskeleton Technology Takes a Step Forward

Researchers from the European Union's (EU's) Robo-Mate project presented their first prototype of an industrial exoskeleton at Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) in Stuttgart in mid-June 2015. According to the group, the exoskeleton makes loads appear to be as much as 10 times lighter to lift. Dr. Hans Wernher van de Venn, head of the Institute of Mechatronic Systems at Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Coordinator of the Robo-Mate project, says the prototype consists of modules for the arms, the body trunk and the legs. It works by supporting the user's arms and legs as well as protecting his or her back and supporting posture. By means of motors and sensors, it reduces the effective load workers have to bear to a fraction of the actual load.

The Robo-Mate project's goal is to develop an intelligent, easy-to-maneuver, wearable exoskeleton to enhance work conditions for load workers and to ease repetitive lifting tasks in an effort to reduce work-related injuries. The project consists of 12 partners from seven European countries, including players from industry and academia.

The technology at the heart of the project involves merging human-guided manipulators with computer-controlled industrial robots. If successful, Robo-Mate industrial exoskeletons could be adopted by a range of industries where heavy or repetitive lifting is required. In time, every industry may adopt some form of exoskeleton enhancement for improved safety and performance.Skepticism about exoskeletons going mainstream may be understandable.The idea of exoskeletons has been around for a long time and the technology has always seemed right around the corner.

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#1

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/23/2015 10:03 AM

These devices are constantly being overhyped.

I feel spinally injured people are often exploited in these developments and given false hope. I realise it is often done with good intentions, and it's a tricky path to tread.

Del

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/23/2015 10:33 AM

Even though I fundamentally agree with you, at times, its 'hope' that all that's left.

One has to put this in perspective. Development takes time and they only show the goal of where they want to be. A plan. A goal and how to achieve this goal.

I had gotten scorched on this before for bringing it up. But war can drive the development of this technology (as well as being the cause) for it to become if not feasible, at least doable.

But when one is sitting in a wheel chair or is bedridden. It can be, putting it mildly,....disheartening.

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#3

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/24/2015 8:20 AM

Interesting technology! I can see additional applications. Even the most highly trained human bodies have major limitations. A healthy, active person can easily climb 3 flights of stairs a few times every day, but climbing 50 flights would be taxing for any athlete. This technology could be helpful where heavy and/or repetitive motion is needed and a robot isn't practical (e.g., bricklayers, firemen, carpenters, automotive mechanics, etc.)

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#4
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Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/25/2015 2:41 AM

Totally agree with that.

I would love an exoskeleton to keep me going a bit longer. Work is getting harder every year......especially as there are no younger folks being trained to do the grunt work under direction. One has to be both grunt and brains.

I could see these being turned into a body worn multi tool....winch, hydraulic power pack, wearable welding machine.....things like that. I now hate climbing and squatting....hurts like cuss real quick.

Could be just the thing for Oz where they're talking about increasing retirement ages....when was the last time you saw a 75YO bricklayer? Oz guvmint thinks everybody is a cafe barista.

It's a good tool and getting better.

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#9
In reply to #3

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/26/2015 11:21 AM

I could have used that tech last year.

I had a repair job that was on the roof of a 40 story building.

From the last level serviced by the elevator and my work site was 83 steps up and down.

On average I was going up and down about 20 to 25 times a day, either for tools, parts and leaving and coming back from meals.

I averaged about 1500 steps per day and it really sucked when I had to bring up heavy equipment up the stairs.

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#13
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Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/26/2015 10:46 PM

I know exactly how you feel mate!!!

Just wait till your hips and knees give out.....ankles are still good touch wood.

Then there's the site where the last 6 metres is a "vertical" ladder with a back leaning rake on it.......starts turning into a circus act real fast.

I've always wanted plastic surgery to get 2 more fully functional arms and hands ......but a suit would work fine.

Gecko skin gloves would be a dream too.

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#5

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/25/2015 3:15 AM

Reality check.

Compare the mock ups with v thin frameworks and tiny joints which wouldn't actually work other than in the movies with the reality in the video of Claire Lomas.

Just watch the video and feel your heart sink.

BTW. She finished 16 days after the marathon began needed two sticks and someone walking behind her.

Please don't get me wrong I have the utmost respect and admiration for her and the people striving to make this work. It's just that there are cases of the false hope leading to suicide. Compare and contrast with the paralympics where the dissability much more accepted and worked with.

(Just in case you are wondering from where I get my soap box... my adult Son is in a wheelchair)

Del

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#7
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Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/25/2015 8:12 AM

Hi Del,

Your skepticism is understandable and well advised, particularly considering your son's condition. As you know, all technologies are clunky, inefficient and oversized when they are first introduced into the marketplace (computers, cell phones, guns, etc.). There are a few points I don't think I made clear enough in my article:

  • There has been sizable investment the last ten years in this technology which is why we are starting to see all these first generation exoskeletons.
  • More importantly, most importantly really, a lot of the investment has been in industries outside of the medical industry, such as the military and industrial consortiums. Humans being humans, saving money and winning wars are strong motivators and are leading to a lot of innovation.
  • Innovations in military and industrial exoskeletons will also improve medical exoskeletons.
  • The power density of batteries will increase significantly the next two decades. This is basically due to market forces. They don't need to increase that much more for exoskeletons to become practical (thus the increased interest these last few years).

I understand your skepticism, and I know it is based on experience and wanting to protect your son and people like him from false hope. And I do agree that this emerging exoskeleton technology should be viewed realistically. It could be decades before we have smooth movement, lightweight exoskeletons for helping people like your son walk. Just as it took decades for us to get computers in our pockets.

But, barring an unforeseen collapse of society, it's on its way. As surely as self-driving cars, or drones piloted half a world away, or computers that fit in our pocket, or quantum computers, etc. It's already crossed that invisible line that technology has to cross for "the money" to start investing in it.

Best wishes to you and your son.

-R

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#8
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Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/25/2015 10:38 AM

Cheers

Del

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#6

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/25/2015 3:52 AM

Sensible exoskeleton for lifting heavy loads....

An exoskeleton allowing a load to feel ten times lighter would merely encourage someone to try to lift something which was 10 times heavier than could be sensibly supported balanced by the small footprint of a human. Thus the exoskeleton would need a strengthened a larger footprint especially on undulating terrain. You don't see that in the artists illustrations and mockups... what a surprise

If we are taking artists interpretations as gospel, then I propose these!

Anyhow I've checked up on my optical computer and it says it's not happening soon

Del

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#10

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/26/2015 11:54 AM

I get hives when I think about these exoskeletons

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#11

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/26/2015 12:15 PM

You know how it is...... The military comes up with an idea at the cost of $4 Billion and then when the tech finally becomes mainstream then the same thing that they spent $4 Billion on now costs $40,000.

I enjoy seeing tech being used for the good of humanity where it can give some of us who are disabled a chance to do what's in our heads and our bodies cannot perform.

It has a way to go before it becomes commonplace and performs like a non disabled person.

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#12

Re: The Emerging Exoskeleton Industry

06/26/2015 12:22 PM

I always liked Sigourney weaver's exoskeleton in Aliens. Not only was it good for bearing up aliens monsters, it's useful in loading cargo.

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