Do you remember the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, when the first kick was delivered by a man in an elaborate exoskeleton suit? This man was Juliano Pinto – a fully paralyzed person. Remarkably, but that exoskeleton suit enabled him to kick a soccer ball with his foot using – only his thoughts!
The progress hasn’t been frozen since the World Cup. Many companies have actively started developing these technologies and today we can see the first results of their hard work.
Wearable robotics are a logical extension of the modern wearable technologies, namely smartwatches, smart clothing, and many others. Noteworthy, the popularization of many wearable devices made it possible to reduce size of the computers, so that people could comfortably wear them on their bodies.
Dmitry Grishin, an entrepreneur and investor who serves as chief executive of Mail.ru Group and founder of Grishin Robotics, says that the revolution in technology and smartphones made many components – cameras, sensors, batteries, processors and others – incredible cheap. This factor boosted development of the modern exoskeletons.
According to recent market research by WinterGreen Research, the market for rehabilitation robots, active prostheses and exoskeletons is already worth $43 million with projected reach of $1.8 billion by 2020.
However, most people think of exosuits as standalone military machines that give superhuman abilities to anyone who wear it. For instance, Iron Man is the most obvious example of a person wearing exosuit.
However, coming back to reality, the United States Department of Defense works on the innovative project Tactical Light Operator Suit (TALOS) that aims to develop a soft, low-powered exosuit that will augment the physical capabilities of soldiers. This suit will allow the soldiers carry 100-plus pounds of equipment or 17 times more weight than a regular soldier without risking the joint and back injuries. These technologies will exceed the physical abilities of all troops.
TALOS project is a collaborative work involving 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities, and 10 national laboratories. Below you can watch a video describing TALOS project.
Albeit, this statement (exosuits are the standalone military machines) is a half-truth, application of this technology is not limited to the only military.
Many companies like Panasonic, Kene Wearable Bionics or Cyberdyne strive to develop wearable robotic suits that will help people move again, or reduce strain on workers who are involved in physical labour for prolonged hours.
For instance, Cyberdyne created the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) – the world’s first cyborg-type robot that enables person move again or reduce common strain on joints and back.
When a person wants to move a leg or an arm, then the brain sends signals through the spinal cord and the nerves that surround it. So, when the person is paralyzed, these spinal nerve structures are damaged, and the signals are too weak to reach the leg or the arm.
HAL functions by picking up these weakened brain signals through sensors that are attached to a person’s skin.
HAL could be applied to many fields such as welfare, medical, industrial or disaster sites. You can watch a video below describing HAL at work.
Another applicability of wearable robotic suits could be in the industrial sector. Panasonic is one of the companies that aim to integrate exosuits into every aspect of our lives.
In their video, they highlighted two exosuits – the Assist Suit and the Power Loader—that according to their vision would improve productivity and change the entire industry. You can watch their video below and share if you’d like to.
Apparently, such technology encounters lots of challenges. For instance, the first generation of the HAL suit weighed around 30 kilograms and required two persons to set up the suit while the last generation weighs only 10 kilos.
You may have guessed that weight and mobility of the exosuits are the crucial factors to consider because they’re supposed to give you wings to ease your strain on joints.
However, in order to make the exosuits lighter, the engineers should first reduce a size of the suit’s parts.
The biggest challenge in reducing size and weight of the parts is the battery life. Analogically to all modern devices, the battery is the biggest headache for all engineers because it can only last for a couple of hours.
Therefore, the engineers should find a way to invent a limitless power source, or, at least, a miniature battery that will last for a prolonged time.
Even though we’re far away from seeing the Iron Man suits on the streets – we should consider this fact that wearable robotics are the fast growing industry that’s already finding its use in medicine, manufacturing and the military.