Powered exo-skeletons (meaning skeletons outside the body… with external power) have long been a thing in science fiction. They typically involve a big metallic suit – think IronMan – containing lots of guns (how else would we have an exciting story) and powerful claw hands. But in the real world, the potential of exo-skeletons has been a topic of investigation by researchers for many years now.
As with many ideas one of the early developers of powered exo-skeletons were the defence sector. One of their main aims was to use the new technology to allow soldiers to move over terrain at high speeds carrying heavy loads.
The technology then moved into factories, with companies like Ford using powered exo-skeletons on their production lines.
Now we are seeing the technology moving into the domestic sector and the applications could potentially be life changing for older people and anyone with reduced mobility. Imagine being able to wear some relatively unobtrusive base layers under your normal clothes that provide you with help with moving standing, sitting, walking and therefore reducing the risk of falls and improving mobility. This has the potential to keep us all more independent, mobile and perhaps most importantly, able to remain in our own homes for longer as we all grow older.
Seismic powered clothing
It may seem like something for a long time in the future but in the USA a company called Seismic are developing exactly such a system right now…
“Seismic is creating stylish apparel, fused with discreet robotics, called Powered Clothing TM. Worn comfortably as a base layer under clothing, Seismic’s suit is designed to augment human strength and give people a physical advantage in their daily personal lives. The suit mimics the biomechanics of the human body to give people intelligent, wearable strength when they need it most. Reacting to the body’s natural movements, the suit will provide “strength assist” to complement one’s muscles during daily activities like the act of standing up, sitting down or extended standing.”
Have a look at their promotional video:
The suit they have developed weighs only 2.5kgs (5.5lbs) and has three layers: an underlayer for comfort and carrying the batteries, a middle layer that contains the robotics elements, those seem to be a set of synthetic “muscles” these can expand and contract to assist with the users motion and provide stability. The middle layer also contains sensors that provide information to the suit’s computer “brain” located on the lower back on the outer layer.
This is Seismics version 1 of their suit, future versions will be more powerful, lighter and easier to wear.
The Seismic suit is a great innovation and for people who only need a small amount of assistance will be a big help to keep them mobile and independent. But for some, more assistance is required and that is where robotics can provide even more help.
“ReWalk Robotics is an innovative medical device company that is designing, developing and commercialising exo-skeletons allowing wheelchair-bound individuals to stand and walk once again.”
Amazing stuff… but also Rewalk have been developing a new product called “ReStore” which is a soft exoskeleton due to launch soon in Europe and the USA. This suit has been specially designed for the rehabilitation of individuals with lower limb disability due to stroke. The suit is now in clinical trials in the USA.
Take a look at a video of the device:
This tech is going to be quite costly at around £18,000 a suit, but this is an early stage and if clinical trials are successful it will get cheaper and better as time passes.
We think that powered clothing and muscle assisted exosuits are a great development which we hope will continue to improve and come down in price. As we are all getting older, using technology to assist us is going to become more and more important. The key for all of us is to have the best quality of life we can as we age and using things like powered clothing should enable people to remain in their homes and require less care as time moves on.