To walk again – Exoskeletons come of age
(Original post date 21st July 2013)
Exo skeletons are no longer a sci-fi fantasy worn by super heroes and soldiers of the future.
Millions of people worldwide suffer some form of paralysis and the only option available to them is the wheel chair. But in the US, engineers have developed a wearable robot ‘exo skeleton’ which allows people with paralysis to stand and walk.
An exoskeleton (from Greek ἔξω, éxō “outer” and σκελετός, skeletos “skeleton”) is the external skeleton that supports and protects an animal’s body, in contrast to the internal skeleton (endoskeleton) of, for example, a human. In popular usage, some of the larger kinds of exoskeletons are known as “shells“.
Examples of exoskeleton animals include insects such as grasshoppers and cockroaches, and crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters. The shells of the various groups of shelled mollusks, including those of snails, clams, tusk shells, chitons and nautilus, are also exoskeletons.
A powered exoskeleton is essentially a wearable robot, a machine that people put on their bodies like a special suit. Designed around the shape and movements of the human body, a powered exoskeleton augments the user’s abilities. For example, a powered exoskeleton can help a paraplegic walk or give a soldier super strength.
In recent years, several companies have succeeded in developing powered exoskeletons for medical and military uses. Ekso Bionics is one such company; it has developed innovative new technology through private funding and grants from the United States Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.
In 2010, Ekso Bionics unveiled a machine that enables a person in a wheelchair to stand up, walk, and sit down. Known as “Ekso,” the battery-powered exoskeleton straps onto the user’s lower body to provide a framework for the legs and motors that replicate the hips and knees. Ekso uses sensors to detect the user’s body positioning; its onboard computer can then interpret and translate this positioning into appropriate movements. Today, Ekso is being used in physical therapy to help prevent the deterioration of muscles.
This is not Ekso Bionics’s first powered exoskeleton; the company also developed HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), which can carry a load of up to 200 pounds. It provides a backpack-like framework that distributes weight down to the ground. Because the weight of the load bypasses the person, the user can carry heavy loads for extended periods of time. HULC has been licensed to Lockheed Martin for further military development.
This article was not written as a big advert for Ekso bionic although they do seem to be at the fore front of this technology in the USA, other companies in countries such as Japan are also making great strides (no pun intended) in exoskeleton technologies.
The reality in Kyoto, Japan, this version may not currently have the capabilities of its ‘Aliens’ counterpart yet, but I can imagine seeing technology like this is construction yards and general industry in the not too distant future.