In the future, will we wear robots?
Before we go inside the body, what about devices that assist from outside? Katie Haylor spoke with Russ Angold, co-founder of Ekso Bionics, a company that makes robotic exoskeletons you can wear to help you lift heavy things...
Russ - It’s just like it sounds; it’s an exoskeleton that goes around the person and looks like a robot. It has actuators very similar to robots that help that user move, or provide assistance.
Katie - I’m imagining a kind of Transformers/Independence Day type thing here. Is that right; it's that scifi?
Russ - It’s probably not like a transformer - it’s slimmer, smaller. We try to make them as light and as svelte as possible so that users can move around the environment without bumping into things.
Katie - Okay. So how do they actually work then?
Russ - You just put it on. It depends on what type of exoskeleton it is. We have medical exos that are designed for people with stroke or spinal injury; they get those sized and put on during our rehab session. We have other exoskeletons like the Ekso Vest that you put on like a backpack and strapped to your arms and your torso, and it provides assistance to your arms. So it depends on the type of exoskeleton you’re wearing.
Katie - I guess the medical side is a little bit more obvious in terms of who might benefit from this but what about the other side - just lifting heavy things? What’s the demand for this sort of technology?
Russ - We actually, about 2 years ago, started getting a lot of interest from construction companies, and industrial companies, manufacturing companies, saying that they have an ageing workforce. They know how to do the jobs but their bodies are just breaking down all the time and is there something we can do with exoskeletons to provide them that extra endurance they need to get through the day safely and productively?
Katie - How are these sorts of things powered then?
Russ - That’s a really interesting question. Some of our early devices had no power at all; basically, what we do is cancel out the effects of gravity. You can imagine I have this vision of everyone that’s hung a ceiling fan and tried to hold that ceiling fan up in their hands, really what you’re fighting there is gravity. We have our EksoVests that just uses spring to cancel the effects of gravity and basically make your arms weightless so you can hold your arms out forever without getting tired, and that’s step one.
Eventually they’ll be powered to provide more capability. One of the big applications we see is material handling. If you think of guys moving object around, so your luggage handling, your construction worker, your maintenance worker manufacturing. People are always moving stuff and we think that’s a great application for exoskeletons.
Katie - This seems to mean then a lot less strain, a lot less potential backache, aches and pains, does this have any consequence for productivity - are people able to do manual jobs quicker?
Russ - Oh absolutely. There are able to do the job quicker and safer. We had an example where a guy was drilling anchors overhead with a concrete rotary hammer, and without our zero-G arm was drilling about 80 holes a day. We gave them the zero-G arm, which then makes that tool effectively weightless and helps push into the ceiling and he went from 80 holes a day to over 400 holes a day. And he was able to go home at the end of the day and help his family with the farm and not be completely exhausted from a long day’s work.
Katie - Wow. That is an impressive difference. You mentioned there the zero-G arm, and I know you have a couple of other products, one being the EksoVest. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the difference between those?
Russ - Sure. The zero-G arm basically amounts to a worker’s aerial lift - platform or scaffolding - and connects to their tool and makes that tool weightless. Again, it’s not powered but it’s cancelling gravity, but if anyone tried to hold a 20 pound or 10 kilo tool in front of them for any period of time, it’s exhausting. We basically made that weightless so the user can focus on the quality of work and getting the job done without straining their arms.
The vest is a wearable device. It actually straps to the wearer and makes their arms weightless so you think of automotive assembly, aero assembly in factories, anytime where you’re spending a lot of time with your hands over the head. Which happens a lot in the construction world now because a lot of the systems are put in the ceiling. It makes your arms buoyant like you’re just floating under water and relieving all that stress and strain from you shoulders and back.
Katie - Is precision also a factor here; it’s something that is particularly important in construction as well as just productivity?
Russ - Right. Well you can imagine, once the strain of either holding the heavy tool up or the fatigue of holding your arms up is gone, then all of a sudden we see an increase in quality which means less rework, the job gets done better and you don’t have to come back and finish things off, so quality is a big asset. We see safety, productivity, and quality as the three real benefits of using this type of technology.
Katie - Very briefly, are we in danger of all turning into couch potatoes as a result of this kind of technology?
Russ - Not at all. This technology gives you more endurance, but the workers are still working or using other muscles that we can’t augment, so there is no risk of that...