Iron Man is probably the most iconic example of a human exoskeleton in the popular imagination. Although a real-life version of the Avengers character is probably far off, Tony Stark’s invention, at least the bare bones of it, is beginning to take shape in reality.
Rather than fighting crime and defending the earth against aliens, however, real exoskeletons are being developed to help the disabled walk. More Iron Man-like, some applications of the technology may involve augmenting human strength for heavy lifting and other industrial tasks. Despite challenges with commercializing the tech, including its complexity and high cost, one analyst projects the global exoskeleton market will grow to several billion dollars within the next decade.
The “TWIICE One” exoskeleton is being developed for paraplegics. TechCrunch believes that the suit “furthers the promise of robotic mobility aids.”
The TWIICE One frame supports the lower half of the body, but wearers must use crutches for additional support to stand. Powered by a battery kept in a backpack, energy is sent to the joints of the frame’s hips and knees, allowing the user to walk. This new suit stands out from competitors since it can be put on without any assistance.
Another company, suitX, developed the Phoenix exoskeleton. Steven Sanchez, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a BMX accident and is now the “chief pilot” for suitX, points out the social implications of the device. “It lets you break out of the ‘wheel-chair bubble’” Sanchez said. “Just being able to walk up to people really changes how they react to you.”
Some expect the exoskeletons will soon expand beyond medical use. “An entire wearable robotics industry, today comprising around forty R&D groups worldwide, is coalescing that should become a $2 billion global market by 2025,” says Dan Kara, robotics industry analyst at ABI Research.
Exoskeletons are being developed for industrial and military use. “This means assisting with industrial tasks that require heavy lifting, or easing extended standing, squatting, bending, or walking in manufacturing facilities and in the construction and farming industries,” Kara explained.
These “super suits,” however, face a number of challenges preventing them from becoming commonplace. These include their complexity, as designers must make them lightweight, durable, flexible, and practical.
Another challenge is harnessing power efficiently. Current battery technology lacks the storage capacity to power exoskeletons for extended periods of time. TWIICE One’s model claims to have 3 hours of battery life. Direct cable power is a short-term solution for industrial exoskeletons but severely limits their general applicability.
Another issue is cost. Most paraplegic and industrial exoskeleton suits go for around $80,000. SuitX made cutting costs a priority, removing certain features from the Phoenix suit to reduce the cost to $30,000.
“Rather than a Ferrari, we’re making a Honda sedan,” said Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of suitX. “We stripped off as much of the complexity and cost as we could.”
Insurance companies are hesitant to cover exoskeletons. The Washington Post reported that one insurance company said it would not cover them “due to concerns with their safety and efficacy,” noting that users could fall, creating liability.
Howard Forman, a Yale University professor of public health, is optimistic about the future availability of these products in spite of hesitation from insurers. “Though these technologies are incredibly expensive now,” Forman said, “we have all kinds of evidence that eventually…they can become affordable to anyone.”
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