Exoskeletons and wearable robotics are where drones were 5 years ago, on the cusp of commercialisation. They are almost ready to explode on the market in many varied applications from medical rehabilitation to solidly deployable industrial manufacturing exoskeletons.
However, real technical challenges stand in the way of realizing their potential, technical challenges that UK companies are uniquely positioned to address and overcome.
I’ve got an enthusiasm for spotting emerging technologies and markets, and I feel the potential of exoskeletons isn’t fully appreciated yet by the people and companies who can make the biggest difference.
Iron Man is currently grounded
There are already several slow and clunky prototypes in development funded by government defence budgets. The USA military are funding two major initiatives: the DARPA Warrior Web programme and Tactical Light Operator Suit – TaLOS, think Iron Man without the flying.
But activity is not just in defence, manufacturing multinationals, particularly automotive manufacturers in Japan (Panasonic, Honda, Cyberdyne, Kuga Toyota) and shipbuilders in Korea (like Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Samsung Heavy Industries) are prototyping exoskeletons for industrial assembly, automotive disassembly and even care applications.
Exoskeleton market is growing rapidly
The exoskeletons market is growing rapidly, it was valued at $16.5 million in 2014, $36.5 million in 2015 (all for medical exoskeletons) and is expected grow dramatically to reach $2.1 billion by 2021.
Early USA attempts at exoskeletons, aiming to reduce fatigue in soldiers carrying heavy backpacks, led to the development and sale of the Lockheed Martin ‘Hulc’. Tests quickly showed that it actually tired wearers faster than walking unaided and it was a commercial failure. The main reason was the control system used was linear and slow, whereas human movement is more complex.
This is not an insurmountable problem and has been solved in many other sectors, particularly for cars, where an automatic gearbox is finally better than me as a human. But, it does require engineers with advanced control systems abilities.
The need for control systems specialists
The exoskeleton sector needs to attract more control systems specialists. Lucky then that the UK has exceptional strength in advanced engineering for Formula 1 motorsport and within the space sector. These teams are looking for great opportunities to use their engineering strengths in other fields. Could the exoskeletons market for medical rehabilitation and mobility for the elderly engage these exceptional UK skills?
At present German companies are our main competitors in industrial collaborations.
Materials and battery life
It’s not just control systems that need refining to make exoskeletons a success, actuation or how the load is applied also needs improving, e.g. how to apply torque with electric motors without breaking an elbow? One goal of design considerations concerns materials, to produce lighter robots though the use of new polymer combinations. This will reduce the devices energy consumption and extend the life of the batteries.
A distant dream is for sensors to pre-empt movement through cognitive or electrical nerve tracking to make walking in a robotic suit smoothly seamless. Current prototypes require the human user to accommodate the limitations of the exoskeleton, which can be exhausting. Wouldn’t it be great if the next generation of products could be trained by the wearer.
Investment is happening already
Exoskeletons fall within the Great British Technology area of Robotics and Autonomous Systems, which has been the focus of significant public sector funding. Innovate UK has funded £22m on wearable robotics, EPSRC £193m and the other research councils have funded a further £40m. One company funded through our open scope programmes is Elumotion who have developed both a fully functional robotic hand which is now commercially available and more recently are commercialising their actuators for others to use.
Once exoskeletons have been proven for early wins in rehabilitation and industrial manufacturing, they can quickly be applied to lifting heavy loads where a flexible response to a changing environment is needed, in sectors as diverse as logistics, aviation baggage handling and care homes.
Consider wearable robotics
There are very few mid sized robotics companies worldwide and this means potential for market share is still open to the UK, particularly for robotics suppliers to tier one integrators. If you have engineering skills and are looking for new applications for your technologies, why not consider wearable robotics?
You can follow me on Twitter: @FionnualaCostel
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