Robotic Exoskeletons Are the New Wheelchairs
Exoskeletons are wearable robots designed to move or strengthen limbs. Already, lower-body models help paralysis patients in clinics around the world. As long as the devices can continue to shed weight and cost, they should become common as replacements for wheelchairs within five years, says Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of two of the companies below.
Innovator: Homayoon Kazerooni
Director of the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley; founder of Ekso Bionics in Richmond, Calif.; founder and chairman of US Bionics in Berkeley
Ekso GT: Created by Ekso Bionics, the Ekso GT was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April for use by stroke and spinal injury patients in clinics, making it the first exoskeleton cleared for stroke victims. At about $150,000, the 48-pound device is the most expensive of the group.
SuitX Phoenix: This spinoff from US Bionics, Kazerooni’s UC Berkeley lab, aims to create the lightest and cheapest medical exoskeleton. The stripped-down Phoenix has forgone the knee motors of competitors and weighs 27 lbs., with an anticipated price of $30,000. A motor for each hip allows the user’s knees to flex on their own to walk, but not to climb stairs.
Innovator: Michael Goldfarb
Professor of mechanical engineering and head of the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics at Vanderbilt University
Indego: In March, Indego became the second exoskeleton granted FDA clearance as a personal exoskeleton. European regulators cleared it in 2015. It costs $90,000 from manufacturer Parker Hannifin. Users control the device by leaning forward (to stand up or walk) or back (to stop or sit). It can’t climb stairs, but at 26 lbs. it’s the lightest of the category.
Innovator: Amit Goffer
Founder of ReWalk Robotics in Marlborough, Mass.
ReWalk Personal: The clear leader in the category, ReWalk won the first FDA clearance for an exoskeleton for personal use in 2014. In October, Andre van Rüschen piloted the device to victory in the exoskeleton event at the 2016 Cybathlon in Zurich, the first international competition for device-assisted athletes. The Personal weighs 66 lbs. and costs $69,500.
Innovator: Mohamed Bouri
Group leader at the Robotic Systems Laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland
Twiice: With development started only in 2015, Twiice nevertheless managed to compete in the 2016 Cybathlon, piloted by former acrobat Silke Pan. Buttons in the crutches, which are used for balance, activate four motors to move the legs at variable speeds or to climb stairs. The $30,000 device weighs 34 lbs.