Exoskeletons have featured in blockbuster feature films since the 70s. Aliens, The Matrix films, and most recognizably Iron Man, all utilize the technology that is firmly rooted in reality.
“Prior to 10 years ago, people couldn’t build exoskeletons that could carry the power that was necessary to keep it going. It wasn’t enough energy to propel people for long periods of time. But this tech has been moving at the speed of light, and we’ve figured it out,” said Thomas Looby, president of Ekso Bionics makers of exoskeleton bionic suits and the accompanying technology.
Looby knows a lot about exoskeletons and Ekso Bionics’ products, but is the first to speak up and say he is neither one of the inventors nor cofounders. He joined the company two years ago after a successful stint with one of the first companies that produced pill cams, a way to record the digestive tract. When the business was sold to a medical device company, he was looking for another position with a company that could offer the same innovative and transformative experiences.
“There were a lot of the same challenges with both companies. I was looking for a company that could help people in so many different areas. Ekso Bionics has broad intellectual property, and is smart by applying its technology in different markets. It was the perfect choice.”
Ekso Bionics’ bionic exoskeletons can be used to help people with mobility-limiting injuries regain their strength, or soldiers who have to carry a heavy pack over long distances. It’s an incredible piece of technology that is changing people’s lives daily. The company’s current focus is on clinic rehabilitation with the Ekso GT™, the company’s newest and most advanced exoskeleton yet.
The wearable bionic suit enables individuals who have suffered a neurological event such as stroke or spinal cord injury to stand up and walk over ground with a natural, full weight bearing, reciprocal gait. Walking is achieved by the user’s weight shifts to activate sensors in the device which initiate steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs, replacing deficient neuromuscular function. The suit can be adjusted from patient to patient, and Looby claims it’s the best product for this use currently on the market.
“Exoskeletons are incredibly personal devices. They fit around someone’s body, and everyone is different. So we wanted to make something that would recognize this need to rapidly change from person to person.”
“Our engineers and designers were thoughtful about how this device can work with your body. And variable assist, the newest addition to Ekso, makes our suit even more customizable.”
Variable assist gives a physical therapist the ability to vary how much power is going through the exoskeleton. For stroke survivors who may have lost the ability to control one side of their body, the Ekso can be fully powered on that side, and let the functioning side carry on as normal.
Ekso can also be adjusted on the fly if a patient is making improvements and doesn’t need as much help, or if the patient fatigues and needs more assistance. This can be done by the physical therapist who has been trained on the Ekso, or the Ekso itself can determine where the power needs to go.
Ekso Bionics has made great strides in healthcare, and the market will continue to be a main focus for the company. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s not the only field where the company is making a difference.
Ekso Bionics licensed its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC—think big green guy from the Avengers) technology to Lockheed Martin in 2009, and through this partnership and sharing of knowledge an application for the exoskeleton technology in the military has been introduced.
The technology in the military’s hands has led to a suit that can help soldiers carry heavy packs long distances. The lightweight exoskeleton can take the weight of the load and transfer it to the ground. This application can be transferred to first responders, who need help carrying the wounded away to a safer location.
When asked if Ekso Bionics is looking to create further partnerships with the military or other organizations, Looby answered with a resounding yes.
“Ekso Bionics is unique in that we have a good foundation for our intellectual property to project the technology into different markets. The core of our company is the labs group—Ekso Labs—which looks through grant possibilities in different markets, and decides where the technology would be best utilized. We get to keep the IP, but let others use it for their own projects.
“Great innovations have come out of our partnerships with government agencies such as DARPA, NIH to name a few. These innovations in turn have helped us to create an unparalleled ability to engage and progress patients in their rehabilitation.”
Looby also shared that Ekso Bionics work on an industrial capacity is “imminent”. The goal is to adapt Ekso to help construction workers, welders, or anyone else working in a heavy industry to bear the weight of their tools.
“Currently, efficiency in these fields is rather low. With the help of some of the load-bearing technology the military utilizes, we can help people work without pausing.”
This, along with a hopeful move into home mobility for the Ekso’s healthcare market, is on the horizon for the company. Looby admitted that the products on the market today are early generations of exoskeletal technology, and from here it’s only going to become better and more useful.
“The products, though impressive in their own right, have to become more capable, safer, and more cost effective for widespread use. Now that the market has access to this technology which we’ve been developing for a better part of a decade, we are starting to get feedback and working on enhancements to meet the public’s need and want.”
While you shouldn’t expect any affordable, mass-produced Iron Man suits just yet, Ekso Bionics is indeed the leader in the field, and will continue to bring innovation to the markets like healthcare that need it.