From the 1960s, research into mechanical exoskeletons – a wearable technology that combines robotics and information systems to form an outer framework for the human body – has predominantly focused on military applications. However, anticipating market potential, a new wave of human augmentation is sweeping the medical research field, with the aim to tackle and overcome health concerns and increase physical capacities.
Companies are expanding their lineup to create exoskeletons that can help support people to walk, stand, and carry heavy objects, as well as assist in health care. Proponents of these new products claim that they can keep older people active, healthy and autonomous for longer, whilst also reducing the effects of disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, paralysis, and general fatigue.
Pioneers of this game-changing technology include ReWalk Robotics, an Israeli company; Ekso Bionics, a California-based bioengineering company; and Cyberdyne, a Japanese venture firm. All have exoskeleton suits in place at local hospitals and assisted-living facilities; for example, ReWalk suits are being used at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York to rehabilitate spinal cord injuries. These products are commercially viable, and are positioned to achieve significant staying power in the long-term market.
This market is expected to boom in places where ageing and shrinking populations - and the attendant heavy societal and monetary cost - are becoming ever-prevalent issues. Japan’s industry ministry forecasts that, for local makers alone, the market of rehabilitation and elder-care robots will reach $1 billion a year in the next decade, up from $140 million now. In the US, ABI Research projects the new industry will be worth $292 million annually by 2020.
There are, however, a number of challenges that the exoskeleton market will need to overcome if the industry is to reach its full potential. As it stands, many healthcare insurers will only cover a small percentage of exoskeleton rehabilitation costs. With Cyberdyne’s HAL suit retailing at $15,000, while ReWalk’s bionic suit goes for $70,000, this dissuades and excludes many individuals. Convoluted bureaucracy could also stymie its wider application; under the Japanese system, for example, there is a lengthy preliminary vetting process before a formal medical device proposal can be filed. This issue could be overcome if market providers are able to demonstrate the benefits that products in this industry will have on the elderly and disabled individuals.
Image: ReWalk Personal 6.0 System
Image credit: ReWalk Robotics