Keystone, Olivier Maire/AP
Japanese alpinist Takeshi Matsumoto
carries another alpinist on his back, to
show how the hybrid assistive limb (HAL)
robot works, Aug. 6, 2006, in Zermatt,
Switzerland. (AP)

‘Exoskeletons’ Boost Human Powers

August 27, 2008 05:03 PM
by Josh Katz
A robotic exoskeleton that can help people who are paralyzed walk is just the most recent technological innovation giving humans newfound abilities.

Suit Helps Paralyzed Walk

Argo Medical Technologies, a high-tech Israeli led by engineer Amit Goffer, has created an exoskeleton suit to help people who have not been able to move their legs for years now walk. The suit “effectively mimics the exoskeleton of a crab,” the BBC writes.

ReWalk, as the invention is named
, “helps paraplegics—people paralyzed below the waist—to stand, walk and climb stairs,” according to Reuters. The user, with the support of crutches, chooses a desired action on remote control, such as stand. He then leans forward, causing the body sensors to move the robotic legs.

“It’s not just about health, it’s also about dignity,” said Goffer, who is paralyzed, in an interview with Reuters.

The suit is still in clinical trials but could cost more than $20,000—more expensive than the most high-end wheelchairs—when it will be released, most likely in 2010.

Reuters reports that, “Other ‘robot suits,’ like those being developed by the U.S. military or the HAL robot of Japan’s University of Tsukuba, are not suitable for paralyzed people,” Goffer said.

ReWalk is “only suitable for people who still have good control over their hands and shoulders,” Dr. Mark Bacon, an expert at U.K. charity Spinal Research, told the BBC.

Related Developments: Helping people move with robotics

Several organizations are working on machines that can help people with impaired mobility, though ReWalk is unique in that it is designed to help those who couldn’t walk before. On April 29, 2008, The British Journal of Healthcare Computing & Information Management wrote about Honda Motor Co.’s experimental device meant to help people who can walk with some difficulty do so more easily. The device is currently in the “feasibility” stage. Lithium batteries power the mechanism for two hours, and thanks to information from hip angle sensors, “the user’s stride is lengthened compared to the user’s normal stride without the device and therefore the ease of walking is achieved.”

On Aug. 4, 2008, the New Scientist examined a new technology meant to improve mobility for the elderly, which the publication so aptly calls the “exoskeleton for grannies.” Tsukuba University engineering professor Yoshiyuki Sankai created an exoskeleton for an arm that “senses the angle, torque and nerve impulses in the arm and then assists the user to move his or her shoulder and elbow joints accordingly.”

Sankai and his company, Cyberdyne, also created HAL, or “Hybrid Assistive Limb,” which equips people with super-human strength. Cyberdyne’s Web site states that a person who normally leg presses 220 pounds could press 396 pounds with the help of HAL. In August 2006, a man using HAL carried his quadriplegic friend up Breithorn Mountain in Switzerland, the Associated Press reported.

“We have shown that such a robot can be used in the snow,” Sankai told the AP. “The most important thing is that we try to support handicapped persons’ dreams. We got some great data, and now we’re going to build a better version.”

This new technology is not limited to those with mobility problems, however. The U.S. military has been looking to harness such power for soldiers and combat situations. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has sought to boost human strength using robotic technology. On March 10, 2004, the Associated Press reported on BLEEX, the Berkeley Lower Extremities Exoskeleton. The machine is meant to help individuals transport heavy equipment or rescue other people, rather than to magically transform people into killing machines," said Homayoon Kazerooni, director of the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley.

With BLEEX, heavy objects feel light. According to the AP, “More than 40 sensors and hydraulic mechanisms function like a human nervous system, constantly calculating how to distribute the weight being borne and create a minimal load for the wearer.”

Similarly, the XOS aluminum exoskeleton, which was funded by the U.S. Army, attaches to a human and increases his or her “strength and endurance,” the BBC reported in April 2008. The U.S. military says more fine-tuned versions of the exoskeleton should hopefully be ready for use in less than eight years.

The BBC notes that this recent creation “is almost like a shadow or a second skin. It is designed for agility that can match a human’s, but with strength and endurance that far outweigh our abilities.”

Related Topic: Robot moved by biological brain


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