Exoskeletons - It’s Not “Iron Man” but They’re Becoming a Reality
Exoskeletons are not easy to describe, but here it goes... They are battery-powered, wearable robotics, strapped onto the body to provide limb strength and mobility to legs and/or arms. They’re being marketed as an aid to increase worker production, for use by first responders to disasters and for military uses.
For the military, use of exoskeletons may mean that infantry personnel carrying heavy loads will be able to run for hours without tiring. First responders wearing exoskeletons would be able to lift larger objects before heavy equipment can arrive to assist. Employers utilizing exoskeletons for positions involving muscle strain may see increased productivity.
In addition to the industrial and military applications for this technology, they are also employed to enable those who are paralyzed, or who suffered a traumatic brain injury or stroke, to relieve the pain and disabilities associated with being immobile - and to regain some mobility. Exoskeletons have been in the works for several years now. Therapeutic use of exoskeletons is not off in the future - it’s here.
Manufacturers include companies such as Ekso Bionics, Parker Hannifin Corp., Argo Medical Technologies and RexBionics. It is only recently that medical facilities, primarily rehabilitation centers and clinics, have begun to utilize exoskeletons in the treatment of patients. Typically, exoskeletons are used in the rehab setting for Locomotor Training and offer “variable assist” modes to dial down the product to what the patient can do.
Exoskeletons could dramatically improve the life of those paralyzed. For Workers’ Compensation carriers, exoskeletons may likely increase costs, particularly as exoskeletons for personal use hit the marketplace. Use of exoskeletons by rehabilitation facilities, however, may also result in a reduction in the need for expensive pain medications and/or other treatments. The benefits to patients for being in an erect position and mobile are medically measureable, such as changes in skin integrity, blood pressure, patient attitude and confidence as well as pain prescriptions. These are some of the results seen with exoskeletons at different rehabilitation facilities across the U.S.
Traditional therapy of those with immobilizing injuries often requires multiple physical therapists plus a doctor to lift and manipulate the patient. With the use of exoskeletons, only one spotter, generally a physical therapist, is necessary. A physical therapist would generally only need a few weeks of training with exoskeletons to be ready to assist patients.
California-based Ekso Bionics “employs exoskeleton technology to make suits for paraplegics that allow some disabled people to walk for the first time.”1 As of March 2013, the company had sold 29 of the $130,000 devices worldwide. Exoskeleton manufacturer Rex Bionics sells its suit to rehab facilities for $150,000.
According to Ekso Bionics, “The market for such technology is pegged at some $10 billion over the next 10 years.”2 According to Heidi Darling, Ekso’s Marketing Manager, the company has sold some 60 units to rehab facilities, including Craig Hospital in Denver Colorado, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, California, University of Miami Project, and Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.
Parker Hannifin Corp., manufacturer of the Indego exoskeleton, entered into agreements with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Kessler Foundation/Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey, Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, N.Y. and Shepard Center in Atlanta, Georgia.3,4
Battery packs for these exoskeletons provide power for about three hours, and manufacturers may provide two battery packs per exoskeleton. Conceivably, the robotics could provide six hours of mobility – in the future for personal use. For now, Ekso Bionics only allows rehab facilities and clinics use of their exoskeleton in one hour increments. While battery life remains an issue, it is certainly conceivable that this will improve over time.
Argo Medical Technologies’ ReWalk exoskeleton, which is used by several rehab facilities, is already available for personal use in certain countries, including Germany and the UK.5
In the rehab setting, exoskeletons are already helping those injured in accidents and those experiencing stroke-related loss of mobility. While it is currently difficult to estimate any increase in Workers’ Compensation claims resulting from their use in rehabilitation facilities, costs will increase when they become available in the U.S. for personal use.
1“Exoskeletons to boost manufacturing worker productivity by 30% part of $10 billion market over the next ten years,” http://beforeitsnews.com/science-and-technology/2013/03/exoskeletons-to-boost-manufacturing-worker-productivity-by-30-part-of-10-billion-market-over-the-next-ten-years-2563796.html, March 25, 2013.
2“Exoskeletons to boost manufacturing worker productivity by 30% part of $10 billion market over the next ten years,” nextbigfuture.com, March 25, 2013.
3“Parker Enters Clinical Trial Agreements with Leading Rehabilitation Centers to Support the Commercial Launch of Indego®,” March 14, 2014, http://www.parker.com/portal/site/PARKER/menuitem.31c35c58f54e63cb97b11b10237ad1ca/?vgnextoid=9a6a9d22e9584410VgnVCM100000200c1dacRCRD&vgnextchannel=9104fbdc71fd7310VgnVCM100000200c1dacRCRD&vgnextfmt=default