You could describe a bionic exoskeleton as a robot suit—a ready-to-wear superman kit a soldier can don to get the extra oomph to tote a hundred kilograms without breaking a sweat or tirelessly run and march farther and faster than otherwise humanly possible.
But this technology, initially developed to boost military muscle power, has moved to the civilian world, where it is being used to help in the rehabilitation of people who have lost use of their legs. And the devices are now on the brink of moving from hospital to home front, for everyday use by people debilitated by strokes, spinal injuries, multiple sclerosis and other conditions.
Since the Second World War, military researchers have dreamt of armour that would allow soldiers to carry heavier loads without injury and move farther and faster without tiring. But research was stymied for decades because computers were too big, materials too heavy, batteries incapable of storing enough energy. Advances in microprocessor technology, sensors, power storage and materials have moved exoskeletons from science fiction to fact.
A soldier wearing the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) can carry a 100-kilogram load with the assistance of battery-powered joints and a metal structure that transfers weight to the ground. In 2012, a woman paralyzed from the neck down in an accident five years earlier, completed a marathon in England using an Argo ReWalk bionic exoskeleton.
Across North America, bionic exoskeletons are becoming more common in rehabilitation hospitals, where they are used for retraining in balance and gait, replacing muscle and nerve function for people with spinal or brain injuries or muscle wasting conditions. The devices are made of light-weight aluminum and titanium and are designed so the weight of the device is transferred through its structure to the ground, not to the wearer. Rehab exoskeletons feature crutches or walkers that provide stability and contain sensors that signal the computerized control system to move battery-powered joints and legs.
While military researchers are working on devices to help soldiers jump higher than Olympic athletes and climb cliffs like spiders, on the civilian side, prototype exoskeletons meant for home use, rather than rehabilitation, are now in development. Researchers are working towards devices that are stronger, lighter, with better balance so the crutches aren’t needed, that allow for hand movement as well—and that cost less, too.
But British Columbians didn’t want the cost—currently $100,000 or more—to be a barrier for retired Canadian Forces captain Trevor Greene of Nanaimo in his battle to walk again. Greene came back from Afghanistan in 2006 on a stretcher, with devastating injuries from an axe wound that damaged the part of his brain that controls motor function. He was then capable only of blinking. Doctors told him he’d never walk again—and he’s spent the last seven years proving them wrong. A gruelling daily rehabilitation exercise regime has slowly reconnected and built new pathways between his brain and body. But each step he takes comes at a cost of tremendous physical and mental energy. It’s hoped an exoskeleton might lighten that load.
A fundraiser begun by high school student Rebecca Lumley and co-ordinated by the Legion Foundation of B.C./Yukon Command has raised more than $100,000 to provide Greene with a personal exoskeleton when he is ready and the device, now just a prototype, is on the market.
But exoskeletons for rehabilitation and as personal walking aids are just the first glimpse of the potential of this technology. Researchers and business leaders are predicting such devices will become commonplace in the future, helping humans who do the heavy lifting on construction sites and oilfields, in hospitals and home care facilities, on farms and in factories.