The EksoVest supports the wearer's arms during lifting. Millions of people Suffer from the effects of spinal cord injuries and strokes that have left them paralyzed. Millions more suffer from back pain, which makes movement painful. Exoskeletons are helping the paralyzed to walk again, enabling soldiers to carry heavy loads, and workers to lift heavy objects with greater ease. An exoskeleton is a mechanical device or soft material worn by a patient/operator, whose structure mirrors the skeletal structure of the operator's limbs (joints, muscles, etc.).
Robotic exoskeletons are back in the news after Ford ordered 75 robotic suits from Ekso Bionics, as reported by my colleague. The relatively small number of orders belies the significance of this moment for a fantastically advanced set of technologies that have been searching for a viable market for over a decade now. Wearable robots that augment human strength have attracted big investment money, but the use case has been harder to pinpoint. The Ford deal follows successful trials of Ekso's EksoVest, one of the company's newer enterprise offerings targeting manufacturing and industries that require workers to lift heavy loads, such as large tools. The pitch is reduced strain on employees resulting in fewer injuries.
Robotic exoskeletons are electromechanical suits that can give paraplegic people the chance to walk again. Full body suits produce impressive results, such as teaching dormant body parts to move on their own again. But they are expensive, ranging from $40,000 to more than $100,000. Now, a Mexican robotics startup is breaking exoskeletons down into smaller pieces, with the goal of making this medical technology affordable and adaptable. Ernesto Rodriquez Leal, PhD., started WeaRobot in 2014, when a personal dilemma inspired him to turn his robotics research into action.
Human-centered design of wearable robots involves the development of innovative science and technologies that minimize the mismatch between humans’ and machines’ capabilities, leading to their intuitive integration and confluent interaction. Here, we summarize our human-centered approach to the design of closed-loop brain-machine interfaces (BMI) to powered prostheses and exoskeletons that allow people to act beyond their impaired or diminished physical or sensory-motor capabilities. The goal is to develop multifunctional human-machine interfaces with integrated diagnostic, assistive and therapeutic functions. Moreover, these complex human-machine systems should be effective, reliable, safe and engaging and support the patient in performing intended actions with minimal effort and errors with adequate interaction time. To illustrate our approach, we review an example of a user-in-the-loop, patient-centered, non-invasive BMI system to a powered exoskeleton for persons with paraplegia. We conclude with a summary of challenges to the translation of these complex human-machine systems to the end-user.