When we hear the word “exoskeleton,” Marvel’s Tony Stark and Iron Man comes to mind. To be able to wear a suit that augments strength, gives flight, and provides ability to fight monsters is quite an interesting proposition. However, it seems research towards exoskeletons are giving a much more realistic view on humanity’s vision of the future.
Exoskeletons are devices that act like external limbs. These are capable of supporting people in various tasks. Theoretically, special exoskeletons should be able to lessen the burden of heavy labor, and provide relief for those with disabilities.
Notable developments in robotics and artificial intelligence mark a rise of usable exoskeletons for a variety of purposes.
“Iron Men” in the Workplace
Nature World News explains the company has released three devices that use the same SuitX technology that hopes to “enhance” the abilities of workers and prevent injuries. Its new Modular Agile eXoskeleton (MAX) hopes to support and distribute forces exerted by joints and muscles to lessen the load of workers when doing heavy manual labor.
Exoskeleton and the Medical Practice
Perhaps most notable are the achievements of exoskeleton technology in the medical field. As reported by Robotics Trends, Ekso Bionics’ GT exoskeleton is the first exoskeleton to be cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical trials.
The exoskeleton hopes to help improve the gait speed of patients with spinal cord injuries. This will hopefully become a device that can help these patients improve their rehabilitation alongside conventional therapy.
In addition, exoskeletons are also now capable of helping patients with mental disabilities such as cerebral palsy. In a recent study as shown in Daily Mail, seven children that were outfitted with exoskeleton suits were able to show significant improvements with their walking. They can now walk much more efficiently and more fluidly with the device. This is a vast improvement, as around half of children with the disability can lose their ability to walk by the time they become adults.
Connecting the Mind and Exoskeleton
Perhaps another interesting venture in exoskeleton technology is the potential capability to help paralyzed individuals control exoskeletons with their minds. In a study published in Nature, David Grayden and his peers have developed some way to control exoskeletons through signals from the brain.
Called a “stentrode,” the device is described as a stent covered with electrodes that react to stimulus. Future researchers and trials would help see whether or not human brain signals can be detected by the stentrode, especially from those with stroke, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, and motor neuron disease.
If this procedure works, then even paralyzed people now have a means to interact with the outside world regardless of their disabilities.
However, it seems the vision towards a future with exoskeletons is no longer simply a “vision.”
Global Exoskeleton Market on the Rise
As per a report by the BIS Aerospace and Defense, the market global wearable robotic exoskeleton is set to grow into as much as $4.65 billion by the time it is 2026. This is due to an increased demand for medical exoskeletons, and for various other industries.
Market Watch also states that aside from more than 50 exoskeleton products available in the market, companies are expanding to combine emergent technologies with exoskeleton research. These include the creation of cheaper exoskeletons through 3D printing, more durable batteries, and other easy-to-make components.
Cost reduction remains to be a goal for exoskeleton developers, given that the price for a powered exoskeleton in today’s time can reach a minimum of $50,000, and reach as high as $120,000 excluding maintenance.
Exoskeletons of the Future: Cheaper, Durable
However, it appears more companies are becoming invested in creating cheaper alternatives for exoskeleton parts. For instance, the EduExo exoskeleton caters for educators, students, hobbyists, and makers thanks to its 3D-printed components.
EduExo, funded through Kickstarter, is not a functional physical therapy device however. The campaign explains that the actuation in itself is inefficient, but the device aims to illustrate the basics of principles when it comes to exoskeleton.
While this does not offer solutions to those who are in need of exoskeletons, the Kickstarter campaign does provide means for those interested in developing exoskeletons to have a head start.
Improvements in exoskeleton technology today may prove that humanity will soon see the rise of exoskeletons thinner, cheaper, and much more efficient than the ones seen today. However, seeing as how even market projections of the global exoskeleton market predict a more active exoskeleton economy, it seems that time will arrive soon.