An Exoskeleton Definition – Wearable Robots

January 28. 2017. 5 mins read
Table of contents

A great deal of how we see the future evolving is through the lens of science fiction movies and TV shows. Every time we describe the way we see a technology moving forward, someone will inevitably say “you’ve been watching too much INSERT SCIFI MOVIE/TV SHOW HERE”. In Star Trek as an example, Gene Roddenberry correctly predicted technologies like Bluetooth, Google Glass, and smartphones. The fact is, you will always be tempted to see technology through the lens of science fiction. Want a good example? How about the word  “exoskeleton”? Sounds really cool, doesn’t it? What are you visualizing? A robot looking apparatus with a human inside shooting lasers and blowing isht up?  That’s kind of what we were visualizing, but more like this:

The above picture shows an actual exoskeleton prototype developed for the U.S. military. While our immediate inclination was to attribute the exoskeleton to applications of death and destruction, the reality is that this sort of device can have all kinds of uses that benefit mankind. First, let’s get the definition out of the way.

Exoskeleton Definition

According to the Google supplied definition:

a rigid external covering for the body in some invertebrate animals, especially arthropods, providing both support and protection.

And one of three definitions from Merriam-Webster:

an artificial external supporting structure

That’s more along the lines of what we see in the picture above. In this case, we’re simply augmenting human capabilities with technology, some sort of machinery, and in the cases of powered exoskeletons, a power source.

Exoskeleton Suit Applications

We’d really break down the use of exoskeleton suits into 3 main areas:

  • Military – This application should be obvious because it’s the first one we visualized when we thought of exoskeletons. The guys over at ExoskeltonReport.com (yes, that’s a thing) have put together a comprehensive website that covers everything exoskeleton for the true aficionado. Alongside articles like “How fake news impacts the exoskeleton industry” is an article that provides a comprehensive look at the use of  exoskeletons in the military, or attempted use we should say. True to form, exoskeletons were first visualized in a 1959 science fiction novel titled “Starship Troopers”. In 2010, the general public became aware of several projects (the Hulc above and a contraption from Sarcos) that created visions of futuristic armies in people’s heads. Both projects came against problems with power sources. Today’s lithium batteries just aren’t dense enough. Adding a bigger battery just adds more weight and that defeats the whole purpose. Expect these to reenter development when lithium battery technology catches up.
  • Industrial – Any job that requires heavy lifting could be made more efficient by the introduction of an exoskeleton suit. In a past article we talked about how a company called Sarcos Robotics took in $10.5 million in funding late last year from companies like GE, Microsoft, and Caterpillar to create robots that can perform dangerous jobs like logging. Some of the Company’s product designs are exoskeletons that require a human to operate. While initial prototypes are big and bulky, soon we should have lightweight exoskeletons that run on dense lithium batteries for an accessible price point. This should happen at about the same time that we see armies of exoskeletons heading over to fight whatever war it is that’s currently underway.
  • Health – This is certainly the application that stands to provide the most benefit as it gives people the ability to walk who might not be able to otherwise. If you think of all the possible walking aids out there like crutches, walkers, canes, and wheelchairs, these could all be replaced by exoskeletons. The market for “personal exoskeletons” will depend on things like cost (they can run upwards of $50,000), insurance coverage (will they really want to cover such expensive gear?), and FDA approval (in a litigious society, everything has to have a stamp of approval).

In a coming article, we’re going to take a closer look at the players in this space with an emphasis on investing opportunities.  While we’re not big fans of using such technology to kill people help spread democracy, we’ll see what sort of progress is being made on the military side or at least who the players are. Usual suspects like the big defense contractors won’t give you any pure-play exposure here.

On the commercial side, there at least a few publicly traded exoskeleton companies that give retail investors some pure play exoskeleton stocks to invest in. One such company is Ekso Bionics Holdings (NASDAQ:EKSO), a tiny $89 million micro-cap that skyrocketed in April of last year on news that their Ekso GT robotic exoskeleton received clearance from the FDA for use in the treatment of individuals with hemiplegia due to stroke. The Ekso GT is the first exoskeleton cleared by the FDA for use with stroke patients and can be seen below:

Since then, share prices have simmered down. We’re keen to see what their plan is going forward and how many of those suits they’ve been selling. Getting FDA approval means nothing if you can’t make your product accessible for patients, both from a cost and distribution standpoint.

We’re also keen to see how far away we are from a price point that would let your grandma don one when she goes out to walk Rover. If you’ve ever performed hard labor for a corporation, you know that “health and safety” makes you go through training that shows you how to lift heavy objects so that if you throw your back out you can’t sue them. When will these courses be replaced by exoskeleton suits that ensure you’ll never have to actually do any heavy lifting? One damaging lawsuit would pay for the entire shop floor to get equipped with exoskeleton suits. How far away from that are we?

Just to whet your appetite a bit, imagine if you will that the founder of D-Wave created a startup that will use artificial intelligence to build intelligent exoskeletons that could even be used sans human in the form of remotely operated robots, the type we fantasized about before that would give us real-time virtual reality experiences. Like this one (if you have 8 minutes to spare it’s so worth it. Seriously). That’s the sort of stuff we’re going to be covering so sign up for the Nanalyze newsletter so you don’t miss a thing.


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