Exoskeletons can make us superhuman, and they might finally be ready for the mainstream

Industries: Healthcare
Trends: Robotics
  • Exoskeletons in the healthcare sector
  • Helping paralysed people walk again
  • Work-related accidents and diseases cost the industrial sector $3.06 trillion annually
  • Exoskeletons can reduce the number of workplace injuries
  • Exoskeleton-powered super-soldiers

The human body is capable of some extraordinary feats, but it’s also very delicate and can easily break down. Our natural abilities, such as our strength, speed, and endurance, gradually diminish as we age, and for some of us, they’ll eventually disappear altogether, leaving us unable to walk. Disease and injury can also affect our abilities, or even take them away completely, making us dependent on others. From the first moment we realised just how fragile we really are and that there are limits to what we can do, we’ve been looking for ways to change that and improve ourselves. And it seems that those efforts are finally starting to pay off in the form of exoskeletons.

According to a recent report published by BIS Research, the value of the global exoskeleton market is expected to reach $5.4 billion in 2028, with Europe predicted to dominate the market with nearly 40 per cent of the revenue share.

Graph showing the expected value of the global exoskeleton market in 2028
According to a recent report, the value of the global exoskeleton market is predicted to reach $5.4 billion in 2028, and Europe is expected to lead with almost 40 per cent of the revenue share.

The industrial exoskeleton market alone is expected to reach revenue of $2.8 billion by 2028. The value of the medical exoskeleton market, on the other hand, is expected to reach $578 million by 2024, while the partial military exoskeleton market will be worth $1.9 billion by 2025. For the most part, such massive growth will be fueled by recent technological advancements, a rapidly aging population, and a growing number of people suffering from conditions that affect mobility, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, and stroke. The industrial sector will also play a major role in the exoskeleton market growth, owing to its desire to reduce the number of work-related injuries and the resulting medical expenses, lower worker fatigue, and increase workplace efficiency. Additionally, rising investment from the military sector, where exoskeletons will increasingly be used to help soldiers carry heavy loads, will be another key growth factor.

Exoskeletons in the healthcare sector

The Wheelchair Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing a wheelchair to every person in the world who needs one but can’t afford it, estimates that more than 130 million people around the world, or nearly 2 per cent of the global population, are in need of a wheelchair. While they can be a lifesaver for people who are unable to walk, restoring a certain degree of freedom to their lives, wheelchairs still have a number of drawbacks. They place numerous restrictions on their users and force them to make major adjustments to their living and working environments. Being in a wheelchair for a prolonged period of time can also have a number of serious side effects, including pressure sores, a condition in which constant pressure on the same area causes the skin to become infected. Exoskeletons could all but eliminate those concerns.

However, exorbitant prices, coupled with the unwillingness of state health providers to recognise exoskeletons as necessary medical aids, were the main reasons that prevented the wider adoption of this technology for medical use in the past. But things are slowly starting to change. Germany recently became the first country in the world to include exoskeletons on the official list of medical aids, which basically means that the German Statutory Health Insurance Funds, which provide coverage for 90 per cent of the German population, will cover the costs of obtaining an exoskeleton for every individual that qualifies for one from now on. The announcement was issued by the German Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection and currently applies to only one device – the ReWalk Personal 6.0 Exoskeleton System – but it’s expected that the list will be expanded to include more devices in the future.

Helping paralysed people walk again

Developed by the Israeli company ReWalk Robotics Ltd., the ReWalk Personal 6.0 Exoskeleton System is a powered robotic exoskeleton designed to help people with spinal cord injury stand up, walk, and even go up and down stairs. The exoskeleton is powered by a battery and features motors at the hip and knee joints, which are controlled by subtle changes in the wearer’s centre of gravity. When the user tilts their upper body forward, the built-in sensors detect this movement and trigger the forward motion of the exoskeleton. The ReWalk is the fastest exoskeleton on the market, allowing users to move at speeds of up to 0.71 metres per second. Each exoskeleton is custom fitted to better match the user’s body measurements and provide a superior walking experience. A number of clinical trials have indicated that ReWalk provides a wide variety of health benefits for its users, including “improved bladder and bowel function, improved mental health, improved sleep, reduced fatigue, decreased body fat, decreased pain and improved posture and balance.”

The news from Germany could be a step in the right direction towards the wider adoption of exoskeletons for medical use. It was soon followed by another announcement from INAIL, a statutory insurance corporation overseen by the Italian Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, which also updated its coverage policy to enable all qualified individuals suffering from spinal cord injury to purchase their own exoskeletons. “The INAIL policy is a milestone in the adoption of exoskeleton technology for the people of Italy, and will serve as a precedent in helping many more injured workers around the world gain access to this impactful medical device,” says ReWalk’s CEO, Larry Jasinski. “We are encouraged by the series of similar decisions by insurers and other payers, and continue to work diligently with providers worldwide to develop coverage policies for spinal cord injured beneficiaries.” Other countries, including France, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand, are also expected to follow in their footsteps and update their own policies regarding exoskeletons in the near future.

Work-related accidents and diseases cost the industrial sector $3.06 trillion annually

Occupational injuries are one of the biggest issues facing the industrial sector today. In fact, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) estimates that the direct and indirect costs of work-related accidents and diseases amount to $3.06 trillion every year, which is equal to 3.9 per cent of the annual global GDP. In recent years, exoskeleton technology has emerged as a potential solution to this problem. It can decrease worker fatigue and significantly reduce the number of injuries in the workplace by providing better ergonomic support or even amplifying strength.

Image showing the direct and indirect costs of work-related accidents and diseases.
Work-related accidents and diseases cost businesses $3.06 trillion every year.

For instance, Guardian XO and Guardian XO Max are two new exoskeleton models recently announced by the US-based robotics company Sarcos, and they have the potential to revolutionise the industrial sector. “It gives a human super human strength,” says Ben Wolff, the CEO of Sarcos. “You’re able to lift a couple hundred pounds repeatedly over an eight-hour session without breaking a sweat. There’s no stress or strain on the body at all.” The XO model has a payload capacity of 36 kg, while the XO Max model increases the capacity to 90 kg. According to the company, the exoskeletons can amplify the wearer’s strength by a factor of 20, which basically means that 45 kg of weight feels like 2 kg in their hands. The exoskeletons are powered by a battery that allows them to run for four and eight hours, respectively. One of the most impressive features of the exoskeletons is their low energy consumption. Walking at human speed requires only 400W of power, which is less than 10 per cent of the energy consumption of conventional humanoid robots.

Exoskeletons can reduce the number of workplace injuries

It takes less than a minute for a person to put on the exoskeleton and get to work. “A human can step inside of it and start moving very naturally using their own reflexes, instincts and intuition to control it,” says Wolff. It’s equipped with a network of sensors and features highly intuitive controls that require very little training, making the user feel as if the exoskeleton were an extension of their body. “Within 30 seconds, you’re moving, and the robot just follows along,” adds Wolff. “It’s like having the most intimately perfect dance partner you could have.” The company plans to offer the exoskeletons as a Robot-as-a-Service business model, which would cost around $100,000 per year. While it sounds like much, Wolff believes that the price is more than justified, as the exoskeletons could increase productivity by 30 times, as well as reduce the number of workplace injuries and the medical costs associated with them. “In 2025, we’ll see 20,000 of these full-bodied exoskeletons working across a wide range of industries, including aviation, auto, maritime, construction, and logistics,” predicts Wolff.

Exoskeleton-powered super-soldiers

Exoskeletons are becoming increasingly prevalent in the military sector as well. The U.S. Army recently signed a $6.9 million contract with Lockheed Martin to develop an exoskeleton called ONYX, which straps on top of the soldier’s clothes and allows them to carry heavy loads for a prolonged period of time without experiencing fatigue. The technology for the new exoskeletons will be licenced from a Canadian company called B-TEMIA, which originally developed it to assist people suffering from conditions such as multiple sclerosis and severe osteoarthritis. The exoskeleton is powered by a battery and uses a range of sensors and artificial intelligence technology to aid the natural movements of the human body, making soldiers stronger and more resilient.

The amount of gear soldiers have to carry into battle has increased significantly over the years, and it can now weigh anywhere between 40 and 64 kg, greatly exceeding the recommended limit of 23 kg. While gear like body armor, advanced radios, and night vision goggles is essential to ensuring the safety of soldiers in the battlefield, carrying such weight around can be detrimental to their performance. “That means when people do show up to the fight, they’re fatigued,” explains Paul Scharre from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “The fundamental challenge we’re facing with infantry troops is they’re carrying too much weight.” But exoskeletons like ONYX could change all that.

According to Keith Maxwell, an exoskeleton technologies manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, recent trials have shown that wearing the exoskeleton can significantly improve a person’s endurance. “You get to the fight fresh. You’re not worn out,” says Maxwell. The original, civilian version of the exoskeleton cost $30,000 and the price of the ONYX is expected to fall somewhere within that range as well. However, the US isn’t the only country working on this technology. Various reports indicate that Russia and China are also looking to supply their own armed forces with exoskeletons, with the Russians already having tested one solution in Syria.

The popularity of exoskeleton technology has increased considerably in recent years. Fueled by a variety of factors, such as recent technological advancements, a rapidly aging population, a growing number of people suffering from conditions that affect their mobility, and the rising incidence of work-related injuries, exoskeletons are starting to find a wide variety of real-world applications. Whether they’re being used to help paralysed people walk again, enable industrial workers to carry heavier loads, or create super soldiers, the adoption of exoskeleton technology is proliferating across sectors, with the healthcare, industrial, and military sectors leading the race. And while there are still some issues that are preventing even wider adoption of this technology in the short term, including extremely high costs, we can expect this trend to continue in the future and find its way into other aspects of our lives as well. It may not be long before all of us can experience what it feels like to be superhuman.

Industries: Healthcare
Trends: Robotics
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