Robotic Exoskeleton Investing

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted May 24, 2013

Various news headlines have characterized Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk as a real-life Tony Stark from Marvel’s Iron Man. With exoskeleton technology becoming more advanced, truth can be stranger than fiction.

Tech companies, universities, and government agencies are developing their own versions of enhanced, outer-limb bionics that would wear comfortably around a person’s limbs. This form of technology covers diverse fields – assisted living, mechanized warfare, space exploration, and trauma recovery.

hal-5 exoskeletonThe types of exoskeletons vary depending on the company or agency, but they can function as upper or lower body units that strap on. From there, the technology will follow the motions of the individual using highly advanced sensors.

Artificial skeletons can be manufactured the old fashioned way or using 3D printing technology.

There have already been 330 of these enhanced limbs, made by Cyberdyne Inc., tested in Japanese hospitals, and they are also being used in parts of the United States, including the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Military and civilian supporting frames could allow the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds.

Should these devices become more readily available to the public, bionic support systems could run anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000, Medical Daily reports.

Cautious researchers highlight the need for more R&D before such technology can become helpful to soldiers or civilians. Longer battery storage must be addressed, and more work must be done to lower prices so they are more fiscally attainable to the public and health insurance companies.

Other experts say the real work needs to be done in making artificial enhancements keep up with a user’s movements.

Military Exoskeletons

The United States does not have a strong robotics field, but the most growth and investment within this industry has been in government research.

Under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), prototypes have been introduced to the public under the Warrior Web project.

Exoskeletons for civilian use may take a decade or more to become more readily available, but DARPA’s version can be mass produced in a matter of a few years.

DARPA is a wing of the Department of Defense, created in 1958 under Dwight D. Eisenhower for science and tech research.

For years, DARPA has invested in the merging of technology and warfare, as evidenced by Big Dog and Little Dog – odd-looking robot carriers that are named after canines but actually resemble mechanical horses.

There is also the two-legged Petman and the Cheetah – able to run with lightning speed.

These are all interesting devices, but DARPA is still factoring humans into the equation by tailor-fitting exoskeleton technology in a lighter and more flexible fashion.

Military-grade exoskeletons are less bulky and more accommodating to a person’s elbow and knee joints for easier mobility on the battlefield.

They are designed to be wrapped tightly around the joints – much in the same way athletes wear elbow or knee braces.

The skeletal suits would not just increase strength and speed, but will also allow soldiers to better balance their weight as they carry heavy backpacks through rugged terrain.

The leg portion of these outer frames can also help with speed, agility, and stamina.

Stress will be taken off of organic limbs, allowing soldiers to preserve more energy and avoid minor injuries.

Lockeed Martin (NYSE: LMT) has its own exoskeleton program called Human Universal Load Carrier. HULC functions in the same way, only the company also plans to market its suits to the industrial sector.

Civilian Exoskeletons

These devices can preserve and protect human life for soldiers and civilians working in dangerous fields.

Workplace injuries and deaths can be minimized, and for the first time human workers may be able to catch up with automated machines.

Many people view automation as a field that is slowly taking jobs away from workers around the world. When exoskeleton technology becomes more accessible, human beings may stand a chance of keeping jobs that are slowly become the duties of fully automated robots.

Some employers in the world have placed higher emphasis on machines over humans because they never get tired, they never strike, and they don’t need breaks.

But exoskeletons are laying the groundwork for one day merging human workers with technology.

And the growth of the still-small robotics industry will create jobs of its own.

In 2011, Japanese company Cyberdyne marketed its HAL-5 fully encased, Iron Man-style prototype suit designed to help civilians or workers in disaster zones.

And it can be controlled with the mind alone!

Cyberdyne is certainly onto something, since workers in the nuclear sector could greatly benefit from such an outer suit.

And exoskeleton technology will help not only people in the line of danger but even everyday people who are not able to get around on their own.

Supportive limb technology can help the disabled move around better or the elderly navigate their homes more easily.

How many times have we heard stories of a son or daughter having to physically care for an older parent, unable to afford a live-in nurse or nursing home expenses?

Exoskeleton technology can help a person with limited mobility live life with dignity and self-preservation.

These devices can even be custom-fit using 3D printing technology.

3D printing technology has been used in many industries, and it can produce any shape as long as there is a digital layout. As technology evolves, experts have been hailing 3D printing as everything from a tech milestone to a possible solution to world hunger.

Advancements have already been able to merge 3D processed splints with exoskeleton technology to make life easier for children suffering from muscle or joint disorders.

Exoskeleton Growth

If you’re interested in following robotics or exoskeleton trends, there are two fronts to keep an eye on. In the U.S., exo-shell technology will make its quickest debut in the military. This sort of technology stands a higher chance of entering civilian markets in Japan sooner than in Western markets.

Don’t count on this technology to make headway among the Japanese military, however, since the nation’s defense forces have been decommissioned for the most part since World War Two.

Technology in Japan is some of the highest developed in the world – from fully autonomous robots becoming eerily closer to resembling humans to cockroaches attached with miniature spy cams to navigate toxic or radioactive areas.

It will be some time before consumer-oriented limb support systems become more available to people in the West, but certain companies are laying the trappings.

Protonex Technology Inc. is from Massachusetts. The company is a manufacturer of artificial support legs, and it supplies lithium polymer batteries to Lockeed’s HULC program.

Indego is another U.S. company that sells equipment primarily for those unable to walk. It claims the technology is 40 to 60 percent lighter than competing exoskeletons. As of now, the Indego brand is not FDA approved and is currently unavailable to the public, but R&D is being devoted to future mass production.

Ekso Bionics specializes in mechanical devices for the disabled and has centers across the U.S., Europe, and South Africa.

There is also the ReWalk from the Israeli-based Argo Medical Technologies, and Rex from Rex Bionics of New Zealand.

But the most growth for civilian robotics is taking place in Japan right now. Robots are already being used to assist the elderly in their homes – including ASIMO by Honda (NYSE: HMC), a four-foot tall robot with the appearance of an astronaut and the ability walk up and down stairs, serve food, and even throw basketballs.

Honda also has a walking assist device of its own.

Other Japanese companies we are familiar with, like Toyota (NYSE: TM) and Sony (NYSE: SNE), are part of the robotics industry in Japan.

Japan has traditionally had more investment capital to spend on the robotics phenomenon, but it also has a little to do with culture as well. Whereas Westerners have had reservations about artificial intelligence because of science fiction and work-related issues, the Japanese still retain a heavy belief in Shinto, Japan’s native religion, which views inanimate objects like robots as no threat to humans and useful throughout everyday life.

And with low birth rates, longer life spans, and not enough worker revenue to support the elderly, robotics is proving to be Japan’s best answer.

Japan’s already well established robotics industry, combined with the needs of an aging population, is a perfect place for exoskeleton technology.

This field has a long way to go, but it is the beginning of a hardware renaissance.


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