Robotic Exoskeletons Are Here. What Can They Do?

August 17, 2016 by Johnathan Powell

Far from being science fiction, these robotic exoskeletons are helping people with disabilities or dangerous and strenuous jobs.

Far from being science fiction, these robotic exoskeletons are helping people with disabilities or dangerous and strenuous jobs.

Let's be honest, who hasn't dreamed of having a robotic power suit?

They've become a common sight in movies and video games, allowing their fictional users to perform superhuman feats of strength, agility, and endurance.


The exoskeleton in the 1986 film, Aliens. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.


But, as is often the case, real-world technology is following the example that has been set by fiction. Robotic suits and exoskeletons seem to be popping up all over the place with a variety of designs, features, and purposes.

Here are a few of the most recent and awesome projects that have been or will soon be making a difference in our world.

NASA's Power Glove

NASA has a history of creating tech for space travel that later finds its way into use back home. A recent example of this is the Power Glove. It is the product of a NASA partnership with General Motors, and is based off the same design that drives the hands on Robonaut 2, a robotic astronaut currently in use aboard the International Space Station. 

In essence, it is a glove with a ring of four actuators around the wrist and pressure sensors on the fingertips. The actuators connect to artificial "tendons" which extend up the palm of the glove and attach to the fingers. Power is provided from a small battery pack, mounted to the user's body, which can power the glove for several hours of use. When worn, the glove detects when the user is gripping something and uses the actuators to augment the user's grip strength. 


The Power Glove. Image courtesy of General Motors.


According to NASA, the glove can add 15-20 pounds to a user's grip strength, while requiring only 5-10 pounds from the user. While this doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be crushing steel pipes or ripping up sign posts, it does mean that individuals whose jobs require them to perform repetitive tasks, or use the same tool for an extended period of time, can do so with significantly less strain and fatigue, as they need only apply enough pressure to activate the glove, and it will do the rest.

GM and NASA hope that the device can be used by factory and assembly line workers, construction workers, and anyone else whose job requires a good deal of repetitive motion, but the technology that goes into it could also aid in the development of other robotics, such as prosthetics and rehabilitation.

Ekso Bionics' Ekso GT

If you or someone you love has ever been in an accident or had an illness or disorder that left them bedridden for an extended period of time, or even worse, completely unable to walk, you will understand that physical therapy is crucial to aid recovery. Unfortunately, it is physically and mentally demanding, both on the patient and the therapist. A slip or a fall could make things even worse, and it may be easy for a patient to become discouraged or afraid. 

Companies like Ekso Bionics are seeking to create robotic exoskeletons that can aid in the process and are making great strides (pardon the pun) in that direction. In particular, the Ekso GT recently received FDA clearance for use with stroke and spinal cord injury patients and is beginning to be used in gait therapy to teach people to walk again. 

It consists of a series of braces which are strapped to the patient's body. A battery pack is attached to the patient's lower back, along with some controls and instruments, as well as two handles for use by the therapist. Sensors and motors work together to support the patient's legs and torso, and encourage correct posture as they begin to walk with the help of a therapist. 


The Ekso GT. Image courtesy of Ekso Bionics.


Depending on the injury, the therapist is able to adjust and vary support in different areas as therapy progresses. For example, they can provide more support to an injured left leg but allow a patient to use their right leg with only slight guidance and correction.

The Ekso GT is intended primarily as a therapy device and carries a hefty price tag, so consumers won't be buying their own models anytime soon. It is currently in use in rehabilitation programs around the world, and will hopefully continue to see increased use as the technology improves.

Below is a video from 2012 showing the Ekso device in action:

SuitX's Phoenix

Similar to the Ekso GT, the Phoenix is intended to help victims of spinal injuries. Unlike the Ekso GT, however, SuitX hopes that the suit can someday serve as a possible alternative to electric wheelchairs, allowing users to own their own suit and use it on a day-to-day basis.

Its modular design allows the user to put the suit on and take it off unassisted, adjust for unusually tall or short users, or only wear part of the suit as needed. It is used with crutches, with controls for the suit mounted on the handles. It also can easily be worn while sitting in a wheelchair.


The Phoenix. Image courtesy of SuitX.


At the moment, however, it is still in development, and as such still requires a great deal of maintenance, and  is not yet ready for general sale. Currently, the suit is mostly limited "test pilots", who both test the suit and even travel the world, demonstrating the suit's capabilities.

Honda's Walking Assist

Finally, we have the Honda Walking Assist. This is a much simpler unit than either the Phoenix or the EksoGT, the Walking Assist program is actually two separate devices. 

The Stride Management Assist is essentially a belt with a battery pack, with two short arms that strap to each of the user's thighs. It provides slight assistance on each step, but requires that the user still be able to walk on their own. While it does reduce fatigue, its primary objective is to help promote good posture, and correct stride rhythm, and form. 


The Walking Assist device. Image courtesy of Honda.


The second device is the Bodyweight Support Assist. It consists of a small saddle-like seat and two legs which strap at the ends to the user's feet. Essentially it functions as a stool or a seat that moves with you, supporting your weight, but without inhibiting your ability to walk and move.


The Bodyweight Support Assist device. Image courtesy of Honda.


Honda began leasing the Stride Management Assist out to Japanese companies for testing in 2015, but it appears that they hope to eventually sell them to the general public. The device is lightweight, but has accomplished this by trading off for power issues. The battery only has a 60 minute run time before needing to recharge, something that will need to be addressed before you can expect to wear yours all day long.


These are, of course, just a few of the exoskeletons that are currently in development around the world. Exoskeleton development seems to be mostly a matter of balancing cost, weight, and battery life, but things are improving all the time.

Currently, most of these devices are intended for use primarily in industrial and medical fields, but as the technology advances, who knows? It may only be a matter of time before robotic exoskeletons become readily available for everyday use.

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