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It's not quite the Power Loader you might remember from Aliens—not yet, anyway—but the wearable bionic suit from Ekso Bionics (Richmond, CA) is a big step forward for anyone who suffers from mobility impairment, or who just wants to lift and carry really heavy stuff. The technology was named by sister publication MD+DI as one of five startups poised to change medtech forever.

Norbert Sparrow

March 15, 2014

3 Min Read
This exoskeleton is made for walking, among other things

It's not quite the Power Loader you might remember from Aliens—not yet, anyway—but the wearable bionic suit from Ekso Bionics (Richmond, CA) is a big step forward for anyone who suffers from mobility impairment, or who just wants to lift and carry really heavy stuff. The technology was named by sister publication MD+DI as one of five startups poised to change medtech forever.

"Our project was initially aimed at reducing musculoskeletal injuries caused by load carrying," Russ Angold, Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of Ekso Bionics, told PlasticsToday. Ekso grew out of research performed at the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. In 2008, the startup, then named Berkeley Bionics, received a research grant from the Department of Defense and unveiled the HULC (human load universal carrier) exoskeleton, which it subsequently licensed to Lockheed Martin for further military development. In 2011, the company was renamed Ekso Bionics and the following year it shipped its first commercialized robotic exoskeleton for use in medical rehabilitation. It achieved a milestone in December 2012, when Ekso announced that it had enabled individuals to take 1 million steps that otherwise would not have been possible. That number is now at more than 5 million.

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The bionic suit helps individuals with any amount of lower extremity weakness, including people with spinal cord injuries, to stand up and walk with a natural, fully weight-bearing gait. It is being used at physical therapy institutions here and abroad. The company recently added variable assist technology to its portfolio.

Variable assist allows therapists to assign a specific amount of power contribution to either leg, which is particularly useful for stroke and other brain injury patients, to dynamically augment patient efforts. It allows weak patients to stand and walk in a stable environment sooner and achieve optimal gait patterns and high step dosages, according to the company.

The exoskeleton is mainly constructed from aluminum and weighs approximately 50 lb, which the user does not support as the exoskeleton is engineered so that the weight is transferred into the ground. Plastics also play a role in the suit design (and their use may increase as demand ramps up).

"The volumes are low at this point—in the hundreds—so we don't have the economy of scale where we can go to injection molding yet," says Angold. "But we do use injection molded plastic parts for some of the complex shapes, such as the handles. And we have taken advantage of the low thermal conductivity of plastics to insulate the motors. We can run them hotter without affecting user comfort," says Angold. Materials used in the construction of the exoskeleton include nylons, ABS, and composites.

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In collaboration with 3D Systems, Ekso recently presented the first 3D-printed hybrid exoskeleton robotic suit. The users body was scanned to enable a custom fit for the suit that conformed to the shape of her legs and back, as reported in MPMN. Ekso uses 3D printing technology for some low-volume production, but it's especially useful in the iterative design process, says Angold.

Angold sees countless applications for the technology in multiple sectors. For instance, back injuries are the number one workplace safety issue, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, affecting more than one million workers each year. The use of exoskeleton technology could dramatically reduce those numbers. "We are in the early stages, though, and have to pick our applications carefully," says Angold. "Medical is a target application right now, but industrial is not too far away."

As for building an exoskeleton that can serve as the last line of defense in a battle with a momma Alien, that may take a while longer, but it's not outside of the realm of possibility.

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.

www.linkedin.com/in/norbertsparrow

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