Many robotics demonstrations force you to use your imagination. What you see on stage is often a simulation of how the robot is intended to be used. You must imagine the service robot in your own home. You must imagine a new mechanical arm sorting parts on your assembly line.
Watching Shane Mosko strap Ekso Bionics’ exoskeleton to his legs with the help of physical therapist Jen Macievich, then stand and walk across a stage at the International CES Robotics Trends conference this past January required no imagination.
Mosko sustained a spinal cord injury and had been confined to a wheelchair. The exoskeleton allows Mosko and others with similar injuries to stand and walk, although still not with the ease physically abled people do. While the exoskeleton allows movement, Mosko was still in charge of balancing and shifting his weight.
Russ Angold, co-founder of Ekso Bionics, said that right now their exoskeleton works well on flat surfaces. The challenge continues to be steep grades.
“Half of what Ekso brings to the table is the psychological aspect — to look people in the eyes again, and be at that same level again. You don’t ever think about being in a wheelchair that you’re so low; you’re kind of in your own world,” Mosko said. “Being able to do the same things that you used to do before your accident is definitely a game changer. It gives me so much hope that spinal cord injuries are going to be a thing of the past.”
The exoskeleton is not meant to replace physical therapy, but work in conjunction with it. In order to prepare, patients need to work on their flexibility and strength. Macievich said that bearing weight and arm function is important. Their first time standing must happen before they are in the exoskeleton. Once they can do that without any adverse effects, then they can proceed.
Macievich also said that the exoskeleton acts as a great motivator in rehab. Patients see that if they keep working on their stretches, flexibility, and strength they will have their turn with the device. It’s not unusual for a patient to take 400 steps their first time out the gate.
When incorporating exoskeletons early on, the rehab process goes smoother and easier. Patients go home with higher function, which results in less chance of re-admission.
Exoskeletons are also used purely as a rehab device for stroke patients. The device helps patients by augmenting their strength and giving them confidence to take the next step. That in turn, eventually gives them confidence to walk without the device. In a short time, they can go from walking just seven feet, to walking 344 feet.
Ekso Bionics launched their medical product in 2012 and since that time, 3,500 people have used it to stand and walk and have collectively taken more than 15,000,000 steps.
Today, there are hundreds of Ekso Bionics exoskeletons assisting those who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries or strokes. Angold expects that as demand increases, the price point will come down. “There’s no reason this will cost more than a high-end motorcycle,” said Angold.
Traci Browne is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing, engineering and science. You can find out more about her at www.TraciBrowne.com.