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Guest Post: This Robot Suit Helps Paraplegics Walk and Gives Humans Super Strength


Exoskeletons, once a fantasy of science fiction in the 1900s, are becoming more of a reality. Thanks to organizations such as suitX, a subsidiary of US Bionics, these mechanical constructs are becoming more affordable on the open market. The Phoenix exoskeleton is one such unit that assists those with medical conditions.

Aside from mobility, the Phoenix provides other benefits. For instance, users can be more social while feeling less confined to their limitations. This has potential to improve confidence while helping the wearer boost his or her self-esteem.

Highlights of the Phoenix

The design of Phoenix focuses on those who are paraplegic or endure spinal injuries. This includes those who suffer from cerebral palsy and other congenital conditions.

The Phoenix works by simulating the movements of the legs. Guided by the wearer, each footfall is that of an actual step. The knee-joint is unpowered, which means the suit provides more of a natural gait. It also means there is less of a chance for problems occurring should the user stub his or her toe into an object.

The Phoenix is one of the lightest and most advanced devices in the world. At around $30,000 per suit, it’s an affordable option to help individuals with mobility disorders. That’s approximately 37 percent of the price of other heavier devices currently available.

The device weighs 26.5 pounds, making it one of the lightest exoskeletons on the market. This greatly reduces any discomfort from the wearer as it takes less effort to carry it. Users are less focused on discomfort and more engaged with the ability to walk.

The Phoenix exoskeleton has a charge-life of approximately four hours of continuous walking time. As a result, users have a long range of mobility whether it’s around the house or getting some fresh air out in the park.

The mechanics themselves are minimal, meaning it can fit comfortably on a wearer even if he or she is sitting in many kinds of wheel chairs. This is because suitX focused more on practicality than complexity. By making the Phoenix as simple as possible, it’s ultimately easy to use and more affordable.

Professor Homayoon Kazerooni of the University of California in Berkeley designed the Phoenix exoskeleton. He is also the founder of suitX and co-founder of Ekso Bionics. Kazerooni has more than 30 years of mechanical engineering experience and has a doctorate from MIT.

The Phoenix impressed judges to win the UAE AI and Robotics Award for Good. Facing off against nearly 700 world-wide entries, suitX won the top prize of $1 million for its innovative and humanitarian project. This was for the pediatric version of the exoskeleton designed specifically with hardware and software for children.


Projects for labor workers

SuitX makes four different modular exoskeleton units for labor workers. These devices take much of the muscle strain from lifting, bending and carrying heavy objects. Greatly reducing the workload on the body, users are more productive while reducing the potential for personal injury.

These suits also increase the overall strength of the user allowing him or her to lift more weight. It also reduces pressure on biological tissue by using springs of compressed air. In a way, this acts much like shock absorbers on an automobile.

The modular system for the MAX exoskeleton works by using up to three completely separate devices: backX, shoulderX and legX. Each unit improves functionality of their biological components respectively. All three are wearable individually or combined in any combination for a particular task. During lab evaluations, the MAX system reduced pure muscle force of activity by as much as 60 percent.

The MAX system tested well in various industries such as shipbuilding, airport baggage handling sites, construction zones, and foundries in both the United States as well as Japan.


Growing Popularity of Exoskeletons

From military to practical home use, exoskeletons are increasing in popularity. Dan Kara, a veteran robotics industry analyst at ABI Research, stated: “An entire wearable robotics industry, today comprising around forty R&D groups worldwide, is coalescing that should become a $2-billion global market by 2025.”

A couple of problems many suits had in the past evolved around limited power supplies and the expense of development. Combined, these two issues prevented many forms of exoskeletons from never truly taking hold of the market. However, advancements in technology are greatly affecting these attributes making exoskeletons more feasible than ever before.

The industry is growing so large that many top brands are putting effort into prosthesis technology. Companies like Panasonic are working on devices that reduce lower back strain in the factory while manufacturers like Toyota look to build their own full exoskeletal system.


Exosuits May Be the Future

Robotics and mechanics are advancing at a rapid pace. Before long, it’s quite possible exosuits will adorn a wide range of industries from construction zones to the military. With support from the medical industry as well, devices like the Phoenix are attractive to those with physical limitations. This is especially true given the affordable cost of the item.

Author info:

Josh McAllister is a freelance tech writer and business consultant based in New York. In his free time, he enjoys all things geeky and gadgetry, the outdoors, and spending time with his family. You can reach him on Twitter @josh8mcallister 

Featured Image: MIT Technology Review

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