Last week the world watched as a paralyzed young man kicked the first ball of the opening ceremonies of the 2014 FIFA World Cup with the help of a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton developed by Miguel Nicolelis and his Walk Again Project research team. This is a landmark time to work in the field of robotics and to be able to reflect on our progression from lab project to marketplace. People like me, who’ve been working with human exoskeletons for over a decade, owe the Walk Again Project a debt of gratitude for bringing exoskeletons out of the closet (pun intended) in a larger way than ever before. You see, it hasn’t been so easy to explain to the world that it’s possible, much less beneficial to those living with paralysis or recovering from a stroke, to wear a robot.
I remember the first time our team at Ekso Bionics [EKSO:OTCQB] had good working demonstration systems called ExoHiker. These were load carrying exoskeletons. They were designed to carry heavy backpacks and vests. We debuted them publicly at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Association of the US Army. We had three or four people walking around the show with heavy weights strapped to the back of the exoskeletons. It seemed like a great demonstration to us, but in fact, most people had no idea what the device was doing or even what it was.
A few years later, it seemed everyone under 20 years old suddenly knew what an exoskeleton was because they started to be standard equipment in science fiction movies. Just last year, the existence of wearable robotics finally hit the financial community, and I started to get calls from investors trying to formulate a “bionic strategy.” Now, it feels like the world’s exoskeleton education is nearing completion with the massive FIFA audience.
What people still may not realize is that a handful of commercial companies are actually selling human exoskeletons right now, and they are proving incredibly useful. I often get asked “why now?” and I think that the answer isn’t that we’ve invented an entirely new technology. It is that a group of existing technologies have matured to the point that now they can be combined into something practical and useful. Just like the pieces existed for Apple to make computing easy, Google to make the world’s knowledge searchable and Tesla to make an electric car popular, the pieces are now in place for roboticists to augment the strength and endurance of the human race.
This is going to change society dramatically, and in fact, it already has. People are often surprised to find out that Ekso Bionics has shipped over 60 exoskeletons to our customers who are global leaders in the field of neurorehabilitation. These devices have helped thousands of patients recovering from stroke or spinal cord injuries to take over 7 million steps that would not otherwise have been possible. We know they’ve done that because the exoskeletons (as you might expect from robots) “phone home,” reporting data that we and our customers can put to good use.
The Ekso exoskeleton is a useful tool for hospitals and rehabilitation centers right now, today. One day, exoskeletons will be helping paralyzed people get around in their daily lives. Eventually, they will help grandparents walk with their grandchildren, and they will look commonplace.
As a company that has been “fighting the good fight,” pioneering the practical application and commercialization of exoskeleton technology for many years now, we applaud what the Walk Again Project has undertaken. They are shooting for the moon with the conviction that at some point you just have to aim high in the name of progress toward a better tomorrow. They seek to demonstrate the feasibility of using a brain machine interface to control human exoskeletons. We look forward to the day such technology is ready for commercialization, meanwhile, thanks to Miguel and his team, the potential of exoskeletons to change people’s quality of life has reached the tipping point of global awareness.