by DAVID AXE
They were once the stuff of science fiction. In recent years, a host of government and private groups have begun experimenting with robotic exoskeletons able to augment the human body — and even restore paraplegics’ ability to walk.
The U.S. military has been a major sponsor of exoskeleton development. But commercial, medical firms have raced ahead of the Pentagon in actually getting the robotic devices into everyday use.
Last month, Argo Medical Technologies, an Israeli-founded firm based in Massachusetts, announced that its ReWalk exoskeleton had been approved for personal use in Europe.
The ReWalk, essentially a paid of artificial, powered legs that strap onto a user’s existing limbs, had already been in use in a clinical environment in five European countries. The commercial launch of the device could clear a path for government approval in the U.S. The ReWalk sells for around $69,000.
ReWalk is conceptually similar to military-grade exoskeletons in development in the U.S. by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the government Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In May Lockheed hinted that its two-year-old Human Universal Load Carrier exoskeleton would soon deploy to Afghanistan for trials. The military exoskeletons are meant to help soldiers carry heavier loads, longer.
Compared to military models, the ReWalk is cheaper and less robust — and aimed at restoring mobility lost to injury, disease or birth defect rather than giving the wearer superhuman strength. The goal, according to ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski, was to produce “a device the user could control and that would work in their specific situations — and can be used all day.”
Older experimental exoskeletons were heavy and uncomfortable, Jasinksi says. They quickly exhausted their wearers, somewhat negating any mobility benefits. “The true challenge is getting something functional.”
The ReWalk is the product of years of development plus bench testing equivalent to five years of steady use. The twin keys are the device’s harness-like “tilt sensor,” which sends instructions to the robotic legs based on the movement of the wearer’s torso, and what Jasinski describes as “elaborate software.”
The ReWalk boasts four motors and two batteries adequate for three hours of continuous walking. It can take several weeks of training for a paraplegic to adjust to using the ReWalk. “You’ve got to learn to balance yourself, learn what it feels like to sit and stand, learn what motions to do with your upper body to trigger the thing,” Jasinski explains.
With the commercial roll-out in Europe, Argo is hoping for quick approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for sale in America.
Jasinski stresses that the ReWalk is strictly a medical device, but it’s clear that wider use of exoskeletons could have a knock-on effect on military systems. Just as the military is adopting smartphones after the devices were “beta-tested” by millions of commercial users, the expanding popularity of medical exoskeletons could accelerate the development of military models.