It may seem like science fiction, but real technology is providing a new solution to people who have lost physical mobility due to stroke or other forms of brain damage. Robot suits, or exoskeletons, are coming out of the pages of comic books and being developed for patients int he real world. Experimental designs are being used right now by patients in several ongoing trials.
These aren’t devices cobbled together in a cave with a box of scraps. Companies like Honda and Lockheed Martin are working on their own designs, along with some newcomers in the field such as Ekso Bionics. Some are even intended to interface with the neuromuscular system, the body’s existing infrastructure for controlling muscles. This interface will allow patients to control robotic limbs as naturally as healthy people control their own.
For now, however, most designs continue to require external controls. A stroke patient in San Jose, California, recently one type of design. His suit used battery-powered motors to help him move his legs, functionality he had lost in a stroke in June. The control center is in a computer he wore strapped to his back. The suit that volunteer tested is designed to monitor the progress of the wearer’s recover and adjust accordingly the level of assistance it provides.
Of course, as with any new technology, exoskeletons aren’t perfect. For one thing, there are severe energy limitations. The human body uses a truly staggering amount of energy. We replenish by eating, but exoskeletons need batteries, and battery life is limited. Materials also present a problem: too heavy, and they are a strain for the wearer, as well as requiring even more energy; too light, and they are also too weak to be effective and durable. Moreover, the cost is currently very high, making the technology simply unavailable to most patients.
However, companies are working to overcome the problems. The initial use is for stroke patients and soldiers who need the physical protection and enhanced strength an exoskeleton can provide. Further development may make these suits available to construction workers and other people laboring in environments where robotic power and human judgment form a good team.