The Mechanical Exoskeleton Shaping the Future of Health Care

A groundbreaking mechanical suit is helping people with disabilities to stand, walk, and carry objects.

The marriage of man and machine has long been a touchstone of sci-fi—and now real life—combat. Video games in particular (MechWarrior, BattleTech, and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division) have had fruitful relationships maxing out on mechanical muscle.

But now, innovations in exoskeleton technology are advancing robotic-assisted prospects not in service of soldiers, but in service of the disabled.

Previously robotic-assistance tech focused on military applications, but a new wave of human augmentation is sweeping the medical research field, helping those in need of support to walk, stand, and carry heavy objects. Treating ailments such as muscular dystrophy, paralysis, and general fatigue, these developments are expanding at an astounding rate.

For example, researchers at Harvard recently unveiled a soft exoskeleton that bolsters the strength of the wearer. A California-based bioengineering company, Ekso Bionics, has had their exoskeleton in service at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital for a few years now. Stanford researchers are working on computing that mimics the processes of the human brain, a technology that, when developed further, could drastically change the way humans interact with prosthetic limbs. And more than 150 Hybrid Assisted Limb (HAL) exoskeletons are in place at hospitals and assisted-living facilities in Japan.

HAL is the brainchild of Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor at the Institute of Systems and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Tsukuba. Decades in development, HAL is finally emerging stateside as a major contender in the burgeoning biotech market; each suit goes for around $15K.

Technology market tracker ABI Research estimates that by 2020, the annual US revenue of exoskeleton technology will reach about $292 million. In Japan, where the technology is already developed, the prospective figures are much higher: the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry projects a tenfold market growth, to nearly $1 billion per year.

HAL is the world’s first exoskeleton device, based on recognition from the World Intellectual Property Organization. The suit uses an advanced nerve-sensing system, based on Sankai’s research in the early ’90s, developing the topography of nerves in the human leg. When a person moves a limb, an electrical impulse is sent from the brain to the muscle. These impulses can be detected on the surface of the skin. From there, Sankai developed a computer to digitize those signals and send the information, via computer, to HAL.

In April of this year, Forbes Asia named Sankai one of the richest men in Japan, despite his company having yet to earn any money. He founded Cyberdyne in 2005 as the corporate face of the University of Tsukuba; in March of this year, Cyberdyne reported an expected net loss of around $4.8 million, though sales for the company had increased substantially through the fiscal year. Forbes estimates Sankai’s worth at $1.12 billion, based on Cyberdyne’s explosive initial public offering last March. It’s the high cost of research and development that keeps the company’s profits down.

HAL is cleared by the European Union as a medical apparatus for patients with a bevy of brain and neuromuscular diseases. As for the U.S., Cyberdyne declined a request for comment, citing an ongoing FDA approval process. In November of last year, the company applied for U.S. market distribution, a process that includes proof of clinical trials and that the product is wholly original.

HAL first made it stateside in 2011, when Sankai and his team brought the suit to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There, an American journalist named Evan Ackerman became the first person in the US to test HAL. During the demonstration, Sankai mentioned that the U.S. government had already contacted Cyberdyne with the hope of militarizing the suit.

In a video following that demonstration, Sankai describes a problem with American innovation: most advancement in science comes at the hand of military and aerospace researchers. Last year, Sankai pledged to retain the majority of corporate voting power, in order to ensure HAL will never be used to that effect.

Sankai and team aren’t the only ones trying to bring exo-technology to the States. In 2011, Lockheed Martin marketed its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). One of Lockheed’s competitors, Raytheon, unveiled their second-generation exosuit in 2012, “coinciding with the release of Iron Man 2 on DVD.” Ekso Bionics was founded in 2005 with similar aims. And indeed, Ekso has licensed its technology to Lockheed Martin, as well as receiving a grant from the Department of Defense. Even so, Ekso claims it has helped people with disabilities take one million steps.

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The sci-fi origins of the companies’ nomenclature can’t be ignored. Cyberdyne is the name of the evil corporation present through the Terminator films, while HAL references the self-aware computer terminus in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Reportedly, it was Sankai’s childhood reading of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot that led to the conviction that he would build assistive robots.) Ekso, too, references the classic Lee Majors show The Six-Million Dollar Man.

In the real world, the HAL suit was used to support workers wearing protective gear, cleaning up after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. That might not be science fiction, but it certainly resembles dystopia.