On a recent journey to Japan, I had the big pleasure to meet with pioneers in the exciting field of exoskeletons. This evolving technology will one day, hopefully enable millions of people to regain independence and a high quality of life, which they might have lost due to aging, disease or first and foremost tragic accidents resulting in an injury of the spinal cord.
Being able to walk is the cornerstone and fundament of health. Something most of us take for granted, yet wasting this precious gift sitting down whenever we can. Therefore I will donate all revenues of my book “Death by Sitting” to the advancement of research into exoskeletons.
What are exoskeletons, who needs them and why?
Exoskeletons are a new generation of assistive devices that have the potential to provide both, training capabilities and functional compensation, to enhance human mobility. These devices allow for the compensation of lost physical capabilities by directly supporting the functional tasks with propulsion, weight support, or balance support. Thus, they have the potential to increase a user’s functional capacity to levels that equal unimpaired young individuals or even to augment functional capabilities to levels beyond natural human capabilities.
Aging and chronic conditions result in wide-ranging losses in physical and sensory capabilities, especially when coupled with a debilitating disease, eventually resulting in a loss of mobility. With declining independence, the number of steps per day often dramatically decreases, again resulting in a cascade of associated health impairments.
While these changes occur over time, patients with spinal cord injuries (SCI) experience a sudden and unexpected total loss of walking ability, often due to tragic accidents.
How do we care today?
To date, mostly passive systems are used to support mobility and independence. To assist with walking, crutches or walkers are used, as they are able to unload joints to avoid pain caused by musculoskeletal diseases such as osteoarthritis. Braces are used to stabilize joints. However, their usage is highly limited in many real life situations and most often not an option at all for any patient with a spinal cord injury.
What can we expect?
The technological evolution of exoskeletons allow for optimism. Prices, currently in the range of 65.000 USD per system are likely to decrease as will unit size. Advancements will likely also benefit from military and industrial applications, that aim to augment humans to bear loads beyond normal physiological limits. If you are researcher in exoskeletons with a promising project and reading this, I would appreciate to hear from you.