Imagine a device that lets paralyzed people walk. Ekso Bionics is working to fulfill that dream. In fact, many of their stakeholders already are walking again.
At last year’s Robotics Alley Conference & Expo, keynote speaker Dr. Kurt Amundson, director of Ekso Labs, described the evolution of the company and then hosted a demonstration of the Ekso wearable robotic device that’s allowing survivors of stroke, spinal cord injuries and disease to stand up and walk. Ekso traces its origin to Berkeley Bionics, named for the University of California Berkeley labs where it began. Ekso Bionics became a new entity in 2011.
The company began by designing devices for military application. Clinical applications came much later. Research produced wearables like passive load carriage for the army and first responders and a low-power DARPA warrior suit.
An early wearable, the ExoHiker, was powered by only four watts. Then came the ExoClimber at 100 watts, and HULC powered by 250 watts with travel at three miles per hour. Growth of Ekso’s intellectual property assets and connections to the scientific community reflects growth similar to the increasing power of their wearables.
Designing military applications to help soldiers led the group in 2005 to create wearable strap-on devices to assist military personnel carrying heavy packs to reduce tiring. A predecessor entity in 2008 introduced the third-generation HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) and licensed it to Lockheed Martin Corporation for further military development.
In 2011, Berkeley Bionics became Ekso Bionics. A year later, the group introduced the prototype for an intelligent bionic device, soon to be followed by the first commercial clinical robotic wearable device.
In early days, designers were focused on military and industrial applications, Amundson noted. Industrial applications include wearables used to assist workers in settings like demolition, assembly, heavy tool lifting and high frequency and long duration lifting. These passive systems require less time to market because they’re not integrated with computer programs.
Clinical functions were not part of the early mission. The process to create a wearable that helps patients is a multi-stage challenge of build, measure, analyze, refine and rebuild. Measurement is a particular design challenge – you have to track, muscle by muscle, he said. You have to build first, and then measure, and then build again, based on your findings. It’s the reverse of most robotics design processes since the device must conform to patient needs to address limitations effectively.
Fast-forward to 2012: Ekso wearables have helped some 5,000 patients with neurological conditions to regain mobility. Though there are commonalities, each patient is different. The challenge is to make a control system that lets the individual do as much work as possible, without allowing the wearable to override the person’s abilities.
“This gives physical therapists a tool,” Amundson said.
Amundson then welcomed to the stage a physical therapist and an “ambassador,” Austin, who recounted that his lower spine was injured in an accident in 2013 when he struck the ground at 65 mph. Austin said he first encountered the Ekso GT wearable at a VA hospital. With help from the physical therapist, Austin strapped on the Ekso suit, stabilized himself with crutches, and then walked across the stage.
The physical therapist minimally employs the assistive software integrated in the wearable to allow the patient to use their own residual capabilities, Amundson said. In Austin’s case, retaining muscle mass from assisted walking is a major benefit. At present, the suit that Austin used is employed only in clinical uses. The FDA has reviewed the device, Amundson said.
Designing wearables for people with limited mobility, including stroke victims, introduces considerations not needed for other robotics designs, such as finding textiles to incorporate for patient comfort. Weight transfer and balance issues are also critical. He emphasized, “We can never let patients go to the floor.”
The companies devices are currently in use in 105 institutions, 25 U.S. states and 22 countries.