Soft robot suits for the elderly and disabled
One day people will switch from wheelchairs to... exoskeletons
Ilya Khel, Hi-News, based on NINJA: The Elderly May One Day Swap Their Motorized Scooters for Robotic Suits
Robotic exoskeletons, this good old stamp of science fiction, comics, books and movies, are gradually becoming part of our world – and, in principle, follow the predictions of science fiction. An exoskeleton is a robot suit. Completely metal and working constantly. Exoskeletons are heavy and need energy, just like the human body, but unlike the first ones, it is not metallic. In order for us to be able to use exoskeletons for long periods of time, we will have to make them flawless in terms of design.
This is where the new exo-suit developed by SRI International should turn the hackneyed scenario around. Instead of building exoskeletons – which are rigid, as their name suggests – SRI uses soft robotics to make lightweight, wearable "exomuscles" and "exosuchons."
Instead of having a rigid human-shaped metal frame, the SRI exo suit is soft, malleable and smart. The suit learns and adapts to the wearer's movements, giving it acceleration if necessary. It can be removed quickly, and it has a relatively low power consumption.
The SRI exo-suit called Superflex has been developed over the past few years with the money of the DARPA Warrior Web program. Now SRI is putting the invention into a new company (also called Superflex) to continue improving it.
Rich Mahoney, former director of the robotics program at SRI, will lead the new venture. In 2014, he described Superflex as an anti-exoskeleton: "It's located under your clothes, it's quiet, comfortable, synergistically correlates with your movements and just adds a little energy at the right time, reducing the total amount of energy your body spends."
Although the costume design resembles something that Batman could take from the Wayne Enterprises special projects section, in fact it is not designed at all for the market of billionaire villains. The exoskeleton development team is focused on restoring the daily mobility of the elderly and disabled.
"You see," says Manish Kothari, head of SRI Ventures, "if my 99–year–old grandfather had put on clothes that no one sees and that would help him walk without a walker, he could have been considered a Superman."
Superflex uses a combination of sensors, electronics and artificial "muscles" and "tendons" to track movement and give them quick thrusts that support the arms, legs or body at the right time. It allows an elderly person to move around without a walking stick or a walker, or to hold a hand that grabs objects evenly – reduces effort without restricting freedom.
Energy, of course, is an acute issue in such an invention. If the exoskeleton is to be used daily, it will have to be energized constantly.
The suit weighs several kilograms, of which a good third is occupied by the battery. But unlike connected exoskeletons, Superflex is not always "on". It only works when needed, which allows the battery to last longer. And even when the battery is at zero, it continues to provide full mobility, unlike the "closure" of rigid models.
Add to this the fact that it can be put on in five minutes – engineers want to reduce this figure to two – and you will immediately see that the device becomes very practical. Although we are not talking about price yet, accessibility is one of the goals of the project.
Superflex is not alone in the world of exosuits.
Another project of the Wyss Institute at Harvard, which is also part of the Warrior Web program, also presents a suit. Led by Conor Walsh, the Harvard team is working with the ReWalk exoskeleton company to bring their brainchild to market.
The advent of soft robotics does not mean that researchers have given up working on more traditional exoskeletons. Superflex can help people with limited mobility. But people, for example, without legs, will need a real exoskeleton to replace a wheelchair.
Work on exoskeletons, both for medical and industrial tasks, continues.
Ekso Bionics, Indego and ReWalk lower body exoskeletons have received FDA approval. Several other large companies will follow them. Hyundai and Panasonic are working on exoskeletons that could help the elderly and industrial workers. This area is gaining momentum faster and faster.
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