Exoskeletons Now and Everywhere

22 Dec 2016

Largely popularised by video game Crysis and a plethora of sci-fi movies, exoskeletons are now part of the modern reality. Unlike the popular media however, these are more than mere military devices, and in the near future will help improve the quality of life for average citizens. So what is the market potential of this tech, why is this important and how could it benefit us? As such, human exoskeletons  are mobile wearable machines, which enhance the movement capabilities of natural skeletal and muscle systems. The first concepts have been conceived as early as 19th century, with the exponentially increasing speed of innovation in the field. Many companies are foreseeing the market value of exosuits and the ensuing societal benefits that they can provide. Therefore, currently a substantial number of researchers and developers are intensively labouring on this technology, exploring various directions and further enhancing the market’s prospects.

For example, US Bionics’ SuitX is an industrial exoskeleton, which aims to reduce heavy labour-related injury and bolster productivity. It provides assistance in lifting, squatting and bending, reducing muscle force up to 50%. They have also have developed the lightest exosuit, PhoeniX, for mobility disabled users, allowing them to walk again. Similarly, Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) allows users to increase their endurance and carry up to 90 kilograms without impeding their movement and speed. Innovation does not stop there however, as ExoBionics has developed the first exoskeleton software, which produces custom training programs to encourage users to explore the healing capabilities of the device. This is only a shortlist of notable mentions, while other significant players include HONDA, ReWalk Robotics, MIT, NASA and European Space Agency. Therefore, exoskeletons will be potentially used in healthcare to help both patients and nurses, to make them physically stronger. It will also change the lives of civil workers, such as firefighters and rescue workers, heavy industries employees and space exploration pioneers.

However, these devices are limited to the moving capabilities of the users, meaning that paralysed patients cannot partake the new technology. Hence, this takes us to one of the recent breakthroughs, which was reached by the scientists at University Hospital of Tübingen in Germany. They managed to create a hand exoskeleton, which can be controlled solely with one’s thoughts, by mapping the brain activity and translating it to the robotic hand. Additionally, eye tracking is used to provide extra control to one’s movements. Scientists believe that this technology could ultimately be used to restore  entire functioning of one's arm, including fingers. Moreover, a motionless but ‘mental’ interface could be the next step in evolution of exoskeletons, helping to push it to the mass market.

And indeed, the recent projections foresee a change in current market dynamics and a further growth of the industry. Various research bodies predict that the worldwide exoskeleton market will grow up to $3.3 billion in 2025, compared to $225.3 million in 2016. The momentum is certainly picking up, preparing to make exoskeletons a part of our social routine. Population ageing and ensuing mobility problems, increased competition in the field, and constant technological improvements ought to decrease the device’s price tags, while the usability of technology has already been proven.

Exciting times!

The market is evolving rapidly due to the increasing adoption of exoskeleton technology in the developed regions. The growing geriatric population coupled with increasing number of people suffering with paraplegia, tetraplegia, and other spinal cord injuries are major factors boosting the usage rates of exoskeletons