Editorial Feature

Will Every Man Become Iron Man? Growing Trends in Wearable Robotics

According to the CFO of Ekso Bionics, the point of the company's wearable robotics program is to create an Iron Man suit akin to the one worn by Tony Stark.

The company, which once produced vehicles used by the military in World War II, currently houses a number of on-going wearable robotics projects—some of them kept highly classified from anyone not directly contributing to the project.

The setting for Ekso Bionics' work sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie. In an industrial area of San Francisco, the company uses an old warehouse to design, build, and test this product. Tents curtain off restricted areas, and life-sized robotic suits hang throughout the building. At any given time, a single suit may be automated to move endlessly—even when no one else is in the building—in order to test durability.

With all that action, you might expect to see a flying suit soon. Despite the fact that wearable robotics are already hitting the market, though, experts are doubtful we'll see Stark-level designs in the near future. Even so, innovative solutions could revolutionize defense and healthcare processes by the end of the decade.

Military Exoskeletons

Ekso Bionics isn't the only company working toward robotic suits. One endeavor, known as the DARPA Warrior Web project, has researchers working on an exoskeleton that would be worn under traditional clothing. The purpose of the exoskeleton would be to increase the strengths inherent in U.S. Military members. Wearable robotics may be able to offer additional protection, enhance communication, and create better data-tracking methods. According to Thomas Sugar, an expert in bionics, exoskeletons are becoming more common in the military and may become common for civilians in the future.

Bomb squads and other specialty units already use exoskeletons for select operations, but Sugar notes that wearable robotics are currently limited by several issues. The suits are very heavy and awkward to move in, limiting the activities for which they are useful. Powering the numerous motors and computers required in such a device is also difficult, especially when the energy source needs to be light and compact.

With companies such as Lockhead Martin, Kobalab, Argo, Nasa, and Cyberdyne working on design solutions for exoskeletons, Sugar believes it's only a matter of time before light-weight, full-body bionics are a practical solution to many defense needs.

Medical Bionics

Defense isn't the only area benefiting from wearable robotics. As materials become lighter and designs become more efficient, healthcare experts are using robotics to increase ambulation for patients. One of those patients, a man who was unable to walk for eleven years after he injured himself in a fall. Today, the partially paralyzed man is able to walk due to a wearable robotic called Indego by Parker Hannifin Corporation.

Patient diagnosed as T10 complete paraplegic experiences use of the Parker Indego™ Powered Orthosis. Video courtesy of Parker Hannifin Corporation.

Indego is one of many ambulation products in the testing stage in U.S. rehabilitation centers. According to experts, the technology will be on the market in about a year. Currently, the technology is only approved for use under physical therapy supervision, but developers are hoping to get approval for personal use so individuals can carry the robotic in a backpack and put it on when mobility without a wheelchair is desired.

There seems to be no limit to the possibilities inherent in wearable robotics. As with all sciences, current limitations will be removed as research and innovation occur. Experts believe complete robotic solutions for military, medical, and every-day use are on the horizon.

Sources and Further Reading

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