“The difficulty for someone who is elderly or disabled to be able to move around is as difficult as it is for a soldier to do their job,” says Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of exoskeleton company SuitX. He believes the key to helping these individuals become mobile again is exoskeleton technology.
While there’s no shortage of innovators trying to develop something that could revolutionize the lives of so many people around the world, there’s just one problem: exoskeletons are expensive as hell. For example, a new exoskeleton developed by Parker Hannifin Corporation comes in at a steep $80,000.
Kazerooni, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, is well aware that the people who would most benefit from exoskeletons can’t really afford this price, and he’s trying to cut costs.
At the RoboUniverse 2016 conference in New York City on Monday, Kazerooni said his company’s progress in scaling back those expenses without cutting into the benefits provided to patients, and he seems to be making progress.
Right now, SuitX is in the midst of testing a cost-efficient exoskeleton model on construction workers and manual laborers, who often find themselves working in difficult positions that put an intense strain on the back.
Called the Modular Agile eXoskeleton (MAX), the suit is proven to help reduce the load carried on the back by as much as 50 percent. Improvements to the current model also include reducing pressure on the knees for tasks where workers need to crouch or squat — slashing into the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knees.
Of course, the problem with MAX is that it doesn’t go far enough in SuitX’s vision — to help revive functional mobility in the disabled. That’s where the Phoenix model comes in — which has demonstrated the capability of allowing paraplegic individuals to walk on their own two feet again. Best of all, it’s modular — meaning it can split into constituent parts that the user can apply as it relates to their condition. A patient might only need to strap on the hip module to walk, or they may need to add the knee module to it but keep the rest of the leg parts off.
Both Phoenix and Max work by adjusting to the intended motions of the individual, increasing and decreasing pressure where appropriate. Its smart sensors adapt to what the user is doing, and to their needs accordingly.
“We’re not interested in superman-type behavior,” Kazerooni told the audience at his talk. “And we���������re not really replacing the person. We’re adding machinery to help give them their functionality back or help them function more appropriately in life.�������������
Phoenix is available for $40,000 — half of what the Parker Hannifin suit costs. Still, Kazerooni isn’t content to stop there. He’s working to get the costs down even further. By the way technologies trend, he might get there sooner rather than later.