A Swiss robotics team is currently perfecting their project of an exoskeleton that’ll soon help those who’ve lost their mobility move again on a grand scale. Robotic exoskeletons actually have a number of different applications. In the industrial sector, this technology is often associated with warfare as it can contain the makings of a superhuman. In fact, it’s original intended purpose was to create super-soldiers, but the Swiss have something else in mind.
But this is not your grandmother’s exoskeleton, where a team of physical therapists hovers over a patient that is tethered up to a treadmill. This new age of exoskeletons are freestanding and adapt to the abilities of the wearer.
Developed in the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, the Swiss’ exoskeleton was designed to mimic human muscles using soft robotics and software that is passive enough to work with the patient’s remaining force. Designed to be worn as a belt with extra support on the lower back, physical therapists at the University Hospital of Lausanne are currently using prototypes on some of their patients victimized by strokes.
Passive assistance from the software and the mechanics of the soft robotics seem to be a winning combination that is now available to all because the team generously made the design and software tools accessible to download.
The Ekso GT
Back in April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its first exoskeleton, the Ekso GT, specifically to rehabilitate spinal cord injury and stroke patients. The Ekso GT has a back plate tall enough to treat spinal cord injuries as far as the cervical region. But that’s not the only one on the market. Indego robotics are FDA-approved to sell to hospitals and patients, and ReWalk costs can be covered for eligible paralyzed veterans.
The Ekso GT provides a variety of level support options to the wearer, which increases its effectiveness and accuracy in the measurements of their progress. An average session without an exoskeleton results on average eight “quality” steps from a patient on their first day of treatment. However president and CEO, Tom Looby claims that a patient’s first session with the Ekso GT can take up to 400 quality steps.
With the Ekso GT, physical therapists are measuring and documenting their patient’s movements and progress with much more accuracy than before. Exoskeletons are still a new concept and it has its drawbacks. They are only available to adults, as the belt can only be adjusted to certain heights and have only been tested on dry and leveled surfaces. And as you can imagine, they are an expensive piece of equipment, costing from $70,000 to $150,000. It has yet to be determined just how effective exoskeletons are and if the drawbacks are truly worth it.