Exoskeleton: the present and the future

Already now, an exoskeleton is a resuscitated fantasy, a device that helps ordinary people get the physical abilities of a superhero. But this is far below the limits of contemporary technical capabilities.

Presently there are several exoskeleton varieties. Subject to their intended purpose, these could be for military or medical use. The former enable to massively enhance the strength and endurance of a warrior, who can now run continuously for several hours and readily carry loads up to 140 kg. Medical exoskeletons are aimed to aid people with restricted mobility of limbs; similar models enable them to move on their own and live a full life.

The military and medical exoskeletons have concurrently been developed all over the world. The majority of domestic products employ the principles set forth by Nikolai Yagn, a Russian scientist who commenced research in exoskeleton creation as far back as early 1890s. In the 1960s, his projects were refined and jointly developed by Yugoslavian inventors and employees of the Priorov Moscow Institute of Traumatology & Orthopaedics. Some of Yagn’s ideas are still in use.

Despite the rampant evolution of up-to-date technology, the scientists engaged in creation of a convenient, functional and affordable exoskeleton encounter a number of difficulties. Restricted action of the energy sources is the main problem. Even most powerful battery cannot ensure long self-sustained operation. It should either be charged, replaced, or else the device should be connected to a wired power source. The scientists looked into the option of replacing batteries for an internal combustion engine or electrochemical fuel cells. In the former case that would substantially increase the size of the exoskeleton, and in the latter an additional cooling system is needed, which is inconvenient. Wireless power transmission would be a perfect option, but no strictly defined mechanism for technical implementation yet exists.

The second crucial problem to be solved by scientists is to find a super-light material for the frame. The first exoskeletons were made of aluminium and steel, but steel proved to be very heavy, and aluminium accumulated fatigue, which ruled out any high loads. The existing super-light materials, like titanium or carbon fibre, suit by efficiency but are expensive to use.

Control stands to be the third problem. The trouble is that an exoskeleton should at the same time be responsive, and protect its user from asynchronous movements. Apart from that, it requires a dedicated system to recognise unintentional actions to save from adverse effects in case of a sudden sharp movement, like sneezing or coughing.

What have we achieved to date? HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) is the most impressive military exoskeleton. It runs on lithium polymer battery, is designed for some 72 hours of continuous motion. It carries the loads up to 140 kg, works at any temperature and humidity levels.

The scientists made equally impressive achievements in medical exoskeleton development. A health-challenged person has more opportunities for recharging the mechanism; such models use onboard replaceable modules with batteries able to run for some 90 minutes. The exoskeleton is controlled via a smartphone app or a special joystick. Up to 30 onboard microprocessors control the patient’s movements. The device withstands a person weighing up to 100 kg. Its movements are lightest, most comfortable and physiologically fit to contribute to proper gait. The system weight is generally below 20 kg. The average global price of a medical exoskeleton is some $90,000.

As of now, the robotics industry has been flourishing, giving birth to new, superior and, most importantly, affordable for consumers exoskeleton models. Symbionix is a major Russian firm engaged in development of a high-performance medical exoskeleton. Our purpose is to give the people with impaired mobility the chance to live a full life, travel, take care of themselves. To pursue that, we merged the efforts of the best engineers, doctors, programming and cybernetics professionals. This brought us to an up-to-date, convenient, compact and self-sustained medical exoskeleton. Most notably, we managed to offer a model affordable to a wide range of buyers. Exoskeletons are not the dim and distant future; it is what we have now, right before our eyes. What should we expect from the future? To us, future is an opportunity to offer the people with restricted mobility reasonably priced, although functional and convenient exoskeletons. And we have been creating this future for you now.

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