June 18, 2024

Future of Exoskeleton: Enhancing Human Strength and Mobility

Exoskeleton technology is emerging as one of the promising fields that can revolutionize how humans interact with machines and augment human capabilities. Exoskeletons, also known as powered exoskeletons or powered augmentation suits, are wearable robotic suits that work in tandem with the human body to enhance strength, endurance, and mobility.

How Exoskeletons Work

Exoskeletons  use electric motors, lithium-ion batteries, and advanced sensors to track and amplify the wearer’s natural movements. The motors provide power to the robotic joints that replicate and augment the movements of the human limbs. Sensors placed at the joints and muscles constantly collect data about the wearer’s motions and intended actions. This data is processed through onboard computers to actuate the motors accordingly and provide mechanical power output in sync with human movements. Some advanced exoskeleton models can even anticipate motions to minimize lags between intention and action. The batteries provide power to run the onboard computers and electric motors.

Types of Exoskeletons

There are generally three types of exoskeletons based on the body parts they are designed to augment:

Lower Body Exoskeletons – As the name suggests, these exoskeleton models focus on enhancing leg and hip strength and endurance. They are primarily aimed at assisting workers who have to perform tasks involving repetitive leg movements like lifting, walking, climbing stairs for long hours.

Upper Body Exoskeletons – These exoskeleton suits feature robotic arms, shoulders, and back attachments to boost arm strength and reduce fatigue. Factory workers engaged in overhead tasks or assembly line workers can benefit from these upper body exoskeletons.

Full Body Exoskeletons – Considered the most advanced type, full body exoskeletons provide augmentation to both lower and upper body. They can potentially enable capabilities beyond normal human limits, though lots more research is still needed in this area.

Applications and Usage

With continuous advancements, exoskeletons are finding numerous applications that can help various industries improve productivity and worker safety. Some key usage areas include:
Industrial Environments
Factories where manual labor jobs involve lifting heavy items or performing repetitive movements for long shifts can utilize lower or full-body exoskeletons to boost worker endurance and reduce fatigue-related injuries. Tasks like assembly, material handling, construction works can be Made easier with exoskeleton assistance. This can help manufacturers boost output while also enhancing worker wellbeing.

Military and Public Safety
Exoskeletons designed for the lower body can help soldiers carry heavy weaponry and combat gear over long distances with reduced fatigue. They may also assist SWAT teams or firefighting units manage challenging work conditions more efficiently.

Healthcare Facilities
Certain patient handling tasks performed by nurses and caregivers such as transferring or moving patients from beds to wheelchairs require stooping or heavy lifting that can cause back strains over time. Lower body exoskeletons have the potential to reduce such physical stresses on healthcare workers.

Some research is exploring if lower body exoskeletons can help patients in recovery from strokes or other mobility issues relearn walking patterns. With further advancements, exoskeletons may potentially assist physiotherapy processes.

Barriers and Challenges

While exoskeleton technology holds immense promise, a few challenges still need to be addressed before they can achieve widespread adoption:

Bulk and Weight Issues
Current commercially available exoskeleton models tend to be quite bulky and heavy, weighing anywhere between 10-30 kgs. This added weight and bulk undermine the augmentation capabilities to some extent. Further miniaturization of components is crucial to make exoskeletons less cumbersome.

Battery Life Constraints
Though lithium-ion batteries are widely used, their energy density limits how long an exoskeleton can run on a single charge, estimated currently at around 2-4 hours. Researchers are exploring alternative battery technologies like lithium-sulfur that offer higher power density.

Cost Factor
Developing exoskeleton systems involves complex robotics and costs for multiple sensors, processors, electric actuators. This makes commercial models currently quite expensive, priced anywhere between $20,000 to $100,000. Costs need to reduce significantly for mass adoption.

Ergonomics and User Comfort
Current interfaces may not optimally match human biomechanics and can cause discomfort for prolonged usage. Variables like harness design, load distribution and joint synchronization require more refinement from an ergonomics perspective.

The future looks promising for exoskeleton technology as continuous R&D resolves challenges around size, battery life, costs and user experience factors. Analysts project the global exoskeleton market to grow at a robust CAGR of over 35% in the coming years to surpass $5 billion by 2030. With mechatronic advancements paralleling overall robotics and AI fields, more capable and user-friendly exoskeleton models will likely emerge that can expand applications across industries. Factories of future would incorporate extensive collaboration between human workers augmented by next-gen exoskeletons. This transformative technology also holds immense scope for helping improve mobility and independence for the disabled. Indeed, as exoskeleton designs mature, they may spark nothing less than a revolution in how people live and work in the decades ahead.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it