The Wrong Trousers
On Tuesday i ventured down to the Hobbs headquarters in Hampshire to have a go in a ReWalk exoskeleton. Originally exoskeletons were developed for use in the military. In 1961, two years before the fictional Iron Man was created by Marvel comics, the pentagon had invited proposals for real life wearable robots. Although a number of different designs and plans were pipelined, it took decades before anything actually came to fruition. For years, would-be powered exoskeleton makers were stymied by the limitations of technology. Computers were too slow and puny to do the processing required to make a suit that would respond to a wearer’s commands or movements.
In the 2000s, the quest for a real-life Iron Man suit finally started to get somewhere.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s incubator for exotic, cutting-edge technology, came up with the funding for a $75 million program, Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation, to speed things along. DARPA’s wish list for a powered armored suit was pretty ambitious: It wanted a machine that would allow a soldier to lug hundreds of pounds of gear for days tirelessly, handle big heavy weapons that normally require two operators, and be able to carry other wounded soldiers off the field on its back. This brief has really pushed development towards suits that supplement the support and power provided by muscles and tendons, and in some cases completely replace the need to have human functional power inside them at all…… you can probably see where im going with this….. Although no exoskeletons are currently being used functionally on the battlefield (as far as we know), these advancements in technology have undoubtedly benefitted the disabled community.
The use of exoskeletons to offer disabled people the opportunity to walk again began in 2012 after the development of a suit for medical purposes by Japanese robotics company Cyberdene. The suit was the first of its kind to receive a global safety certification, which spurred on other companies and manufacturers across the world into production.
The exo you can see me in here is a Ekso GT. One of the leading exos in the industry this model is specifically designed for rehabilitation. What sets it apart is the fact that it can be adjusted to provide different levels of support at each joint, making it useful for people with various levels of injury. Its capabilities range from standing and walking complete paraplegics with no power from below the waist to offering resistance to your gait to help build strength. I assumed that the main reason i was there to use it was to try and do a backflip. Apparently i was mistaken. I was actually there to feel what walking in a normal gait pattern would feel like again and to hopefully highlight some more areas for improvement… as if i needed any. After being strapped in whilst seated i was told to relax as the suit stood me up. That was weird.. it lifted me effortlessly out of the chair and onto my feet. I cant imagine how strange/amazing/scary/emotional that moment must be for someone who hasn’t stood for years. I remember how weird it was when i stood for the first time post injury and that was only after two months. So to be given that experience again after a great deal longer must be incredibly moving.
We started off with the suit walking me so to speak. Naturally you have a strong urge to resist the movements but eventually when i relaxed it started to flow nicely. As we progressed the settings were changed so that the suit provided progressively less help until eventually it was resisting my movements. By forcing me into a normal gait pattern a few interesting features were revealed.
- I am not fully extending on my right (good) leg in stance phase.
- With my knee and hip stabilized in the suit my left leg becomes a perfectly competent stance leg.
- A normal gait pattern no longer feels normal to me.
The first two points highlight areas for improvement and give me confidence that by extending through my right leg more and continuing to strengthen the stabilizing muscles in the hip and knee of my left leg then my gait should improve. The final point was interesting. I have now spent so long away from my normal walking pattern that my body has forgotten how it feels to be moving symmetrically. When the suit took me to the centre line it felt as though i was leaning too far left, although i could see in the mirror that i wasnt. This highlights the challenge i am facing at the moment in that i am not just having to re learn the correct patterns but i’m having to undo incorrect ones as well.
The whole process was still worth while even though I couldn’t do a backflip or walk up the walls, and the fact I managed to not break it was a bonus because the model I was sporting costs a cool £100,000 😳. Probably the most expensive trousers I will ever wear….
So what’s the future for exoskeletons? The same Japanese company (Cyberdyne) developed the Robot Suit HAL, an even more ingenious concept. Instead of relying on a human operator’s muscle contractions to move the limbs, HAL incorporated sensors that picked up the electrical messages sent by the operator’s brain. Theoretically, an exoskeleton based on the HAL-5 concept would enable a user to do whatever he or she wanted without moving a muscle, but simply by thinking about it. Technological advancements mean it won’t be long before real life iron men will be flying around… and I may even get my backflip…
P.s. If anyone else has any experiences with exos i would love to hear your thoughts….
P.p.s. Went up to watch the Wasps game today. It was a good win and we were looked after incredibly well. From top to bottom there are so many good people at that club. 🐝