Top Tech 2013 Day 4: Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons are a personal favorite of the staff here at Prokalkeo, for a variety of reasons. Exoskeletons appeal to the same sense of the future drove us into academics and then starting Prokalkeo, but also have a massive market just waiting to be tapped as they develop. From commercial, to medical, to military-the ability to increase raw human physical ability will fundamentally change many industries, and we can only speculate on the overall effect.

Unlike previous years, it’s hard to point at two or three specific massive advances in the development of exoskeletons-so much is happening now that it’s more useful to try to find a couple advances that characterize how we feel the market is developing, and give an idea of the future.

While it didn’t happen this year, we think it is important to point at an important development from 2012, the paraffin/carbon nanotube synthetic muscle fibers. While these have not yet matured sufficiently to be integrated in any sort of servos or non-lab technology at all, they are still an incredibly important development that indicate what future capacities may look like. More information on the development and links to the work can be found here:

However, 2013 has been a great year for proponents of exoskeletons. Companies like Ekso, which have previously primarily been restricted to working within medical devices, have announced their intention to move into industrial/commercial robotics, and more information can be found here, and a video here.

Italy continues to be a vanguard of cybernetic research with the development of Mindwalker at the Santa Lucia Foundation hospital in Rome, Italy. The Mindwalker project sounds like something out of science fiction, but is very real. An exoskeleton designed to support individuals with weak or paralyzed legs is combined with a virtual reality training environment and an EEG headset for neural control of the setup. It’s a mind-controlled exoskeleton, and it shows strongly what the future will hold. Video here.

NASA has announced that it is working on the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton, which would allow for strength amplification of astronauts-while they wouldn’t be subjected to the same rigors as the military, it would help them deal with the body decaying effects of microgravity. NASA is partnering with IMHC and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, Texas.

While no major announcements have been made this year, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have both been working on military exoskeletons for some time (the XOS and the HULC, respectively). US SOCOM has been working to develop the ‘Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit’, or TALOS, which would be a light exoskeleton for special forces, designed for augmenting their capabilities and improving their survivability.