Merging Humans and Machines: A Look at the Applications, Benefits and Challenges of Exoskeleton Technology

Merging Humans and Machines

Exoskeletons resembling futuristic armor suits have moved beyond science and delved into realism. 

Exoskeletons’ promise resides not just in their capacity to empower people with disabilities but also in elevating human performance across a myriad of domains. These devices allow people to go beyond their natural physical abilities, opening up the doors for a new age of human excellence by fusing the greatest of human capability with cutting-edge tech. Dive in as we explore the applications, transformative potential and challenges of merging human capabilities with technological advancements through exoskeletons.

What are exoskeletons?

Exoskeletons, also known as exosuit and exoframe, are a type of wearable device designed to enhance or restore the users’ physical capacities. Powered by hydraulics, motors, pneumatics (i.e. the use of air pressure for movement) or levers, these devices support and augment movement based on the design and the user’s requirements. 

Technological exoskeletons typically comprise metal frameworks, actuators, sensors and control systems. They can either encase the entire body or be tailored to specific parts, such as arms or legs. 

Types of exoskeletons

The exoskeleton landscape has blossomed, offering a variety of devices powered by distinct operational mechanisms:

Powered exoskeletons, such as the EksoNR, utilize batteries like lithium-ion for actuation and come in two types: static, which requires continuous actuator activation and dynamic, which is more energy-efficient without constant actuator use. Passive exoskeletons, on the other hand, operate without electricity, aiding in weight redistribution, energy capture, dampening and locking for tasks like prolonged static positions. 

Pseudo-passive exoskeletons, like Ottobock’s C-brace, incorporate features of powered versions but lack actuation. Meanwhile, hybrid exoskeletons merge features of powered variants, uniquely using muscle input as actuators.

Exoskeletons: A panorama of applications

Medical applications

Hyundai Medical EXoskeleton
Image courtesy of Exoskeleton Report

Exoskeletons have made their mark in therapeutic exercise and rehabilitation. They offer invaluable assistance to individuals grappling with neurological disorders and mobility issues, enabling them to support weakened or paralyzed limbs. This not only optimizes balance but also revives movement.

Here are some real-life examples of medical exoskeletons

  • Hyundai Medical Exoskeleton (H-MEX): Designed for patients with spinal cord injuries, this exoskeleton facilitates activities such as sitting, standing, walking, navigating stairs and even running. 
  • Cyberdyne’s Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL): Beneficial for patients with spinal cord injuries, cerebrovascular diseases, traumatic brain injuries and other neuromuscular ailments, aiding them in movement and walking.
  • Ottobock’s Phoenix Medical Exoskeleton: Empowers individuals with mobility disorders to stand upright and regain mobility.

Industrial applications

Cyberdyne’s HAL Lumbar Type for Labor Support
Image courtesy of Perkeso Rehabilitation Centre

In the industrial realm, exoskeletons are redefining worker safety and efficiency. They target the upper torso, lower back and limbs, simplifying the lifting of heavy objects and repetitive tasks, ultimately enhancing productivity and minimizing musculoskeletal injuries.

Exemplary industrial exoskeletons:

  • Ottobock’s Paexo Thumb: A compact exoskeleton crafted to alleviate thumb strains during rigorous activities, such as frequent button pressing or spreadsheet inputs.
  • Cyberdyne’s HAL Lumbar Type for Labor Support: Offers lumbar support, aiding nurses in moving patients or assisting seniors during physical therapy sessions.
  • Comau’s Mate Exoskeleton: Assists production workers by supporting shoulder movement, negating the need for batteries or motors.

Military and defense

Lockheed Martin’s Onyx Exoskeleton
Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Exoskeletons can significantly upgrade a soldier’s capabilities, allowing them to traverse rugged terrains, carry heavier loads and maintain stamina. Thus, it helps military personnel carry out their tasks more effectively and securely while increasing mission efficacy. A notable mention is Lockheed Martin’s Onyx Exoskeleton, which employs artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze movement data from sensors on the feet, knees and hips. This data is relayed to a waist-mounted control module, which in turn guides the exoskeleton’s movement.

Sports

Panasonic’s Atoun Model Y Power Assist Suit
Image courtesy of Panasonic

Athletes are harnessing exoskeleton technology to shatter performance ceilings. These devices augment strength, speed and endurance, emerging as indispensable assets during training and in reducing injuries. For instance, during para powerlifting events, assistive suits can aid staff in placing and removing plates on the bar. Similarly, motorized devices attached to the ankle and foot can decrease the energy spent, allowing athletes to run faster.

Challenges ahead

While the rapid evolution of exoskeleton technology is commendable, it presents potential pitfalls:

Dependency

While exoskeletons promise improved capabilities, the risk of users becoming unduly reliant on these devices is one to consider. Should widespread adoption occur, we may witness a diminution of natural physical ability. The convenience of technology might overshadow our intrinsic power, agility and endurance, potentially causing humans to drift from abilities they once harnessed independently.

Inequality

Elevated costs and limited access might amplify existing socio-economic divides. To illustrate, a report from Health News highlighted SARCOS, a prominent robotic exoskeleton producer, charging an annual US$100,000 for renting industrial wearables and US$71,600 for spinal cord injury aids. Such disparities can lead to imbalances in fields like sports, military and labor, thereby deepening societal inequalities and fostering marginalization.

Ethical issues

Exoskeletons aren’t just tools—they hold power. Misuse, particularly in augmenting human strength, can raise security alarms. The risk of these devices being weaponized, especially if commandeered by malicious entities, is tangible, underscoring the need for cautious oversight.

Furthermore, because exoskeletons gather users’ biometric data, there are concerns about data privacy and cybersecurity. In our increasingly tech-dependent era, safeguarding such sensitive information from breaches and ensuring user consent becomes paramount.  

To wrap up

As exoskeletons usher us into a transformative epoch, their potential to reshape sectors is evident. However, as with all groundbreaking technologies, the challenges they present cannot be overlooked. It is imperative to ensure that the evolution is not just technologically sound but also morally and societally responsible. As the adage goes, with great power must come even greater responsibility.

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Header Image Courtesy by Pexels

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