Researchers and engineers across the world are inching closer everyday towards developing a sci-fi technology that, when it becomes a full-scale reality, can make paralytic locomotor disability a thing of past. The technology, featured in countless science fiction movies till date, is aptly named ‘Exoskeleton’. Here’s a brief roundup.
POWERED BIONIC EXOSKELETON
(1) What is it?
As the name suggests, it is a motorized, whole body covering metallic framework (skeleton) that the patient ‘wears’ like a suit (hence exo-) and controls just by finger movements (in case of paraplegic/ hemiplegic patients) or even directly through brain signals, via electrodes connected on the head (in case of absolutely quadriplegic or highly debiliated patients).
(2) Whom can it benefit?
Almost all types of patients suffering from paralysis, gait disturbances or extreme limb weakness (though different customized versions will have to be made for different types of paralysis or debility). The development of robotic limbs for amputees is also hoped to benefit by borrowing some components directly from this technology.
(3) Some long history cut short, please?
Like most futuristic technologies, this one too originated in science fiction novels and started off as a military project for making super soldiers. Some cooler-headed people, though, found out a more noble use for it, in the form of exoskeletons that help paralytic people to walk.
(4) So what is the position today?
As of today, only a few exoskeletons are available commercially in the market, and a lot are under development in the Healthcare segment. Rewalk from Israel, ekso eLEGS from USA and HAL5 from Japan have been the most notable commercial products so far. Recently, the first beta-user patient went home all by himself, successfully wearing an exoskeleton.
(5) That’s great! But why isn’t the technology fully functional yet?
Making such a machine is not a very feasible thing technically and commercially at today’s level of technological progress.
The major hurdles being worked out currently are –
1. The motors and hydraulics needed for such a machine today come either too bulky to be feasible or too costly to be affordable to the common man. ReWalk, for instance comes with a price tag of about 85,000 US Dollars.
How is it being solved –
The manufacturers, on their part, are hoping to leverage economies of mass production to bring the costs as much down as possible. At the same time, research is on for developing synthetic ‘electric-plastic’ materials (electroactive polymers, to be technical) that can exactly mimic human muscles in action (contracting/stretching on application of opposite electric signals), and the so-called ‘pneumatic muscles’, for use in place of motors and hydraulics. Such materials can bring down both the weight as well as the costs of the exoskeleton drastically.
2. The machine needs to identify and eliminate human control errors correctly, lest it can cause serious accidents. For example, a sudden involuntary muscle twitch in the user can cause the exoskeleton to go into a violent spin-off movement if not recognised and ignored. The dangers in direct brain signal control are even greater, imagine what could happen if the user suddenly gets angered and feels like kicking someone in the bottom 🙂 .
How it is being solved –
Artificial intelligence (computer programs that are designed to make machines ‘think’ and ‘learn’, the way humans do, from observation and experience) seem a promising solution currently; so that the machine can habituate itself and ignore the unintended involuntary movements of the user. Simultaneously, the users are given thorough training and practice before actual use. The patient who walked home in an exoskeleton, for example, was given 8 months rigorous training first to achieve the feat. Also, hardware level safety measures are usually created to avoid accidents.
3. The movement abilities of the exoskeletons are nowhere comparable to real limbs in terms of precision and agility.
This may need some really revolutionary technical advance to improve, but to be frank, it is a big issue only for super-soldier makers, not healthcare manufacturing. For wheelchair bound patients, even the ability to walk about and do simple chores by themselves can make a huge improvement in the quality of life, as for today
4. Funding the research is the single biggest bottleneck factor, specially in developing countries. Only big corporations are currently in a position to fund exoskeleton research, causing even more concerns about its premium pricing.
5. There is no way to make a one-size-fits-all exoskeleton for all patients. Till date, the exoskeleton has to be specially customized for each patient‘s height, weight, gender and age etc., again leading to increased production costs.
6. None of the common power sources prove efficient enough to be viable for such machines. Most electric batteries don’t last more than a few hours in action. Internal combustion engines are no option due to their temperature and vibration producing nature.
How it is being solved –
The possibilities of making hybrid fuel cells that can operate at relatively low temperatures, among other things, are being explored. Seemingly, that can take some time.
(6) The Roadmap ahead –
Increased involvement of government research agencies is currently being pegged as the prime need of the hour, so that the pricing can be done in public interest. In fact, the military establishment can lend a big hand technically as well as financially, considering the large number of disabled war veterans who can benefit from it. Lately, it is proposed that the open-source software community can be engaged for developing the required AI and other control interfaces at cheap costs. We can even daresay that complete medical exoskeleton projects can be built on open-source and non-profit basis through crowdfunding and other innovative financing models. Corporates could invest their compulsory CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) spendings into such nonprofit research and development. Industry-academia partnerships can be another way, which has already been quite successful.
Of course, these are just ideas, a lot of ‘If’s and ‘When’s that need big organized efforts to materialize. So, spreading awareness and interest in the people becomes the first step. Hope this was a small part on our behalf through this article, and now its your turn!
Do you have any ideas to share or something to add to this story? Have your say in the comments box below and reach out!
(Image credits: Featured image copyright is with the Author. All other images taken with thanks from various public domain sources.)