Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wrap me in technica

The logical step between models of virtual appendages and implanted muscle stimulators and FES systems is an exoskeleton. No surgery, easily removed, easily upgradeable, and more suited for non-paralyzed persons. Well, here are the goods on what systems have been making the news in the past few months.

The Honda "assist walking device" is the most recent newsworthy device. This lower limb exoskeleton is essentially an ASIMO robot without an upper half. That is both good and bad.

Far cooler is the anime inspired HAL by Cyberdyne, which can be rented for $1000/hour. I want to rent one just so I can wear it as I carry a car across campus for no reason.

The Exos, which basically looks like a more capable and "Americanized" full body exoskeleton is being targeted at soldiers for heavy lifting. I say Americanized because it looks like the inspiration is more sheer power and militaristic over aesthetics and compactness, like the HAL. I don't know what the difference is between lifting power, and I doubt they have a consistent way of measuring that between device makers, but rather than show a semi-androgynous wavy haired guy posing, they show a guy sitting strait up lifting a massive weight effortlessly. There's also the below YouTube clip.

The Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology has their own suit that is aimed at aging farmers and general manual labor workers, with an emphasis on cost and durability. $2000 - to own.

One big problem with exoskeletons in general is that in order to provide power, you need, well, power, and that usually comes in the form of heavy batteries tied to heavy, noisy motors. An alternative is to use pneumatics for the tough stuff, guided by electronic cut off valves. That's the idea behind the University of Michigan exoskeleton. That's some smart thinkin, though it limits the use, since sitting in a coffee shop to recharge your EXOs would work better than find a scuba trainer and loading up your compressed air canister.

Rewalk is another sexy exoskeleton that only exists in CAD form, but looks like a serious attempt at another mass market exoskeleton. Argo Networks is specifically targeting paraplegics and looks to introduce their first version in 2009. I have to say that it seems strange that we're working on exoskeletons to carry heavy packs into war, and then other exoskeletons for those soldiers that become paraplegic because of war int he first place (I'm not a hippie, just noting the irony.) It would be strange to imagine going into battle with one exo, and needing a different one when you get home. I'm sure the psychological impact of getting into the suit would make it tougher to, say, recover for PTSD.

And finally we have the UC Berkeley exoskeleton, BLEEX. This is older news, but the link provided goes straight to the media page so you can check out the videos and other media.

And here is a quick link to past stories on DNI regarding exoskeletons.

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