Our Future Robodies
BY KITT WALSH
One of the problems with getting older is that our bodies are basically still working on the premise that we are all going to die around age 45. Our bones weren’t designed to make it to 80 or older as so many of us now routinely do. We end up with joint pain or osteoporosis or break a hip or a whole litany of things that inhibit our mobility. Even if we don’t end up with a walker, we may still have problems going up stairs or handling heavy things.
That may all be behind us in the brave new world upcoming.
You may remember Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man (“We can rebuild him…”) or Robocop, where a cop who went down in a hail of bullets rose again as half man/half machine. Such scenarios are no longer just science fiction. Several companies are working on exoskeleton devices—soft wearable suits that can help seniors do what they couldn’t do before: carry heavy burdens, provide a boost of strength to weak legs, send support to weak arms, provide a steady hand when their own shakes too much.
Superflex by SRI International is one such company. Quoted in Technology Review, President Manish Kothari uses one of my new favorite words, “redignify”. He says, “A walker is a ‘very cost-effective’ solution for people with limited mobility, but it completely disempowers, removes dignity, removes freedom, and causes a whole host of other psychological problems. Superflex’s goal is to remove all of those areas that cause psychological-type encumbrances and, ultimately, redignify the individual.”
Superflex uses sensors to “learn the individual” wearing it and only adds power when needed for the required movement, meaning the battery isn’t being drained all the time.
The battery problem has yet to be solved (and SRI International won’t say how long the power does last, nor how much the suit will cost when it becomes commercially available.) It is the former problem, the development of a long-term power supply that is holding up the development phase.
Another lightweight exoskeleton frame, according to the manufacturer BAE Systems, “minimizes pressure on the wearer’s lower back, hips, knees and ankles while improving posture and reducing the risk of injury,” and might even help seniors stay on the job longer. Again, no prediction when BAE’s complete exoskeleton will become available but partial exoskeletons could be coming up soon—particularly ones that requires no external power.
The Walking Assist Clutch has no batteries to replace or recharge, is held in a user’s hand and can make it easier for humans to walk, According to an article published on the Carnegie Mellon University’s website, Carnegie Mellon University’s Steve Collins and his collaborator Greg Sawicki, a biomedical engineer at North Carolina State University have developed a lightweight, boot-like exoskeleton that is attached to your foot and gives you a 7% improvement in walking—the equivalent of taking off a 10 pound backpack (or losing 10 pounds around those hips of yours.)
So how exactly does the Walking Assist Clutch work?
The device uses a spring that acts like the Achilles’ tendon and a clutch that mimics the calf muscles. The difference is that the spring and clutch do not expend any energy the way tendons and muscles do.
“The unpowered exoskeleton works in parallel with your muscles, thereby decreasing muscle force and the metabolic energy needed for contractions,” says Sawicki, co-author of the article.
This could help stroke victims or, as Collins, a mechanical engineer and roboticist, explains, “Someday soon we may have simple, lightweight and relatively inexpensive exoskeletons to help us get around, especially if we’ve been slowed down by injury or aging.”
In a fascinating TED Talk, available here, Dr. Karen Nolan, Senior Research Scientist in Human Performance and Engineering Research at the Kessler Foundation, discusses how exoskeleton’s can literally transform a rehabilitation session for someone suffering from hemiplegia (the one-sided paralysis often found after a stroke). The “old way” to conduct such a session would be to have the therapist hold the patient on one side while assisting them to walk. In the future, the exoskeleton will sense when the paralyzed leg and foot are in the proper position and not move until the patient is balanced, then will assist them in doing so.
Even more strides are being made in linking exoskeletons with brain interfaces to have patient’s “think” him or herself into more mobility. A surreal description of those experiments may be found here.
The Exoskeleton Report even shows videos of four different applications for exoskeletons already off the drawing board and in use here.
While exoskeleton use is currently largely limited to military use, development of commercial applications—to support our injured back or lend strength where we are weak—is being carried out at a feverish pace around the world and, like all technology, improves with each generation of the devices being developed. With new power sources being created, the potential price tag of exoskeletons will rapidly drop, making such devices affordable to many of us. As such technology is introduced and endorsed by more physicians, eventually insurance companies will have to come to terms with what they will and won’t pay for, as their clients demand to throw away their walkers and don the exoskeletons.
The point is this: We will not have to face old age with the debilitation or disability our parents had to face. Our golden years could more aptly be called our robo-years. We can, in fact, be made better and for a lot less than $6 million dollars.