Reimagining the human body—Innovations resulting from military research bring good news to the disabled
From The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman in the mid-1970s to today's Ironman, robots have been imagined as super-human beings capable of lifting the world on their shoulders. While we've seen predictions of a $100 billion robotics industry, where are the robots and what should we expect?
Today the robotics industry is taking incredible strides especially in Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and China, as well as Europe. Where is the United States in all this activity? Fueled by the NASA space program and billions of dollars spent in the last 10 years on military research, non-military innovations have emerged. Will research dollars spent by engineering companies, universities and the private sector help people at a personal level? Eye on Innovation investigates innovative medical uses of one technology—the exoskeleton—designed for the military to enable soldiers to carry heavy loads over rugged terrain.
With the continuing breakthroughs in the field of medical science, there has been an immense focus on innovations that can provide inventive ways for the disabled to achieve certain levels of mobility. An example illustrates one potential innovative use. Descending the stairs to work in his study, a 55-year-old university dean in prime health experienced tremors in his right leg. Symptoms continued to surface: speech was affected and his uneven gait impeded his balance. After several falls, his neurologist administered an MRI that showed white patches in the brain matter indicating possibilities ranging from multiple sclerosis to Lou Gehrig's Disease. Seventeen years later, the same dean still has no definitive diagnosis. He now cannot walk at all and can barely move from the motorized wheelchair to his bed.
Unlike paraplegics with artificial limbs, this man still has legs—they just don't work because the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves has deteriorated. Because these diseases are somewhat rare, little funding is available to research the causes and provide treatment or enhance his functionality. Yet, maybe, just maybe, money spent on military technology may let such wheelchair-bound individuals walk again.
This issue of Eye on Innovation identifies potential consequences of the latest military innovations in the field of robotics and how they may help the university dean, patients like Christopher Reeves with spinal cord injuries, stroke victims and, as the population ages—even the elderly. We'll explore Dialog sources in engineering, medical devices, conference proceedings, as well as business trade and news databases, to assess what has spearheaded the innovations and who is on the cutting edge of creating them. Dialog's collection of patent and trademark files will show where innovation is being initiated. We'll pay special attention to how innovations to improve disabled persons' quality of life have accelerated as a result.
The Bionic Man and his exoskeleton
Yet when University of California Berkeley graduating senior Austin Whitney took seven steps with the help of a remarkable robotic innovation to get his degree and shake hands with the Chancellor, tears fell, and disabled citizens across the globe hoped for a new life.
Whitney, paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident in 2007, was the first human to test the exoskeleton for this type of disability. This robotic device, designed by Berkeley Professor Homayoon Kazerooni and a team of graduate students, operates through a switch on Whitney's walker, enabling him to stand and walk.
Sources: Dialog NewsRoom, Dialog Global Reporter
Exoskeletons — wearable robots
In robotics, an exoskeleton is a powered suit that is used to magnify human strength and/or speed. It is also a lightweight wearable, artificially intelligent bionic device. A limited, medical form of exoskeleton, an orthosis, attaches to a limb, or the torso, to support the function or correct the shape of that limb or the spine. Primarily developed for military usage to enhance soldiers' strength and endurance on the battlefield, doctors are also studying exoskeleton applications to assist the physically disabled.
The implications of exoskeletons in the health field go beyond giving paraplegics robotic legs. They could also teach the disabled to learn to walk on their own again. As one woman said after using the exoskeleton, "I'm usually in a wheelchair and four feet tall staring up at people's nostrils. Now I'm able to look at the world." (www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/10/berkeley-bionics-elegs) In Japan, and soon in China, needs of the elderly are a larger driving force. In the coming years, the elderly will be major users of assisted mobility devices. Devices are coming on the market to help farmers in Japan, who have an average age of 65, to reduce the strain of work. As of 2009, exoskeletons have been built, but are not widely deployed. Neither are exoskeletons widely available commercially, but that could soon change.
Patents and trademarks — a peek into the future
Patents filed by Argo Technologies in 2008 and 2009 under the international Patent Cooperation Treaty pursue protection for their exoskeleton technology with 124 designated countries, and for the control system in 27 countries. Rex Bionics’ exoskeleton patent designated 123 countries in which they want to pursue protection as early as 2009 and for a controller for its walking aid in 112 countries.
The latest and greatest
Some of the latest exoskeleton innovations to hit the market include:
Sources: Inspec®, Inside Conferences
Who's taking the lead?
French governmental officials have not only been responsive; they are backing their support with incentives as are other countries targeting this future medical bionics marketplace. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China's governments have created robotic stimulus programs with this $100 billion industry in mind. Gaining market share will provide jobs and revenues to these strategic early planners.
And the United States? The U.S. does not yet have such a robotic plan nor any national direction regarding robotics. In his 2011 State of the Union Speech, President Obama specifically excluded robotics when discussing the need for strategic investment in key areas of innovation. Without national strategic focus, progress will remain slow and very dependent on Space and Defense for research dollars. The American robotics industry faces a death knell unless there is a clear call to action by the President and backing of a robotics program by Congress.
However, there is also independent investment. In Wisconsin, Indiana, Georgia, Massachusetts and Alabama, state-, corporate- and educationally-sponsored Robotic Centers are springing up to provide training in the programming, repair and maintenance of robots, as well as for research and testing. Alabama's recently opened Robotics Technology Park is a $73 million three-pronged endeavor to provide (1) an industry training program where technicians will be trained to work on robotic machinery; (2) a test facility for NASA and the U.S. Army for research and testing of leading edge robotics for defense and space exploration; and (3) a facility to allow start-up companies to build and adapt robots for new industries. Imagine if this kind of state-inspired public-private forethought were done on a national level.
Universities also seem to think robotics is an upcoming field. UC Berkeley has awarded seven advanced degrees involving exoskeletons with the University of Washington close behind. Stanford has granted over 200 degrees in robotics; MIT is a close second with 194.
Sources: Dissertation Abstracts, Dialog Global Reporter
What does the future hold for medical bionics?
Two-thirds of present-day service robotics industry revenue is in defense, security and space, but it is expected that near-term and future growth will be in healthcare and quality of life to control costs, empower healthcare workers and enable aging citizens to live longer in their homes.
Questions still remain: can the cost for such devices fit a personal budget? Will future exoskeletons be lighter weight and more efficient so that anyone can use them? Time and creative minds may make this robotic innovation a reality not just for Iron Man but for the college dean as well.
With increasing numbers of post-war baby boomers beginning to face old age, devices assisting people to remain mobile as they grow older will become big business. Dr. Kazerooni at Berkeley Bionics says it all: "This technology can be accessible to a large number of people, and that is our mission. This is just the beginning of our work. We can't wait to see what is coming next. We are on the verge of a new era of mobility for people with paralysis, using bionic exoskeletons — first in rehabilitation centers — and later making them available for home/personal use."
Sources: Dialog NewsRoom, Dialog Global Reporter, AP News, BusinessWire
Where are the robots in Japan's nuclear crisis?
It's surprising that Japan, long considered a technological powerhouse, resorted to such rudimentary methods of cooling the Fukushima Daiichi plant's nuclear reactors after its 9.0 earthquake as water-bombing them with lead-lined helicopters. Japan has invested millions in developing all kinds of robots, including machines that can work in hazardous places like nuclear power plants. All too often, they've proved to be expensive but useless prototypes. Tokyo Electric Power Co., (Tepco) only has robots that can inspect reactor shrouds for cracks, according to Hasegawa. In their desperation, Japanese authorities turned to Massachusetts-based iRobot for help. The Special Ops division of Japan's Self-Defense Forces asked for assistance from the U.S. military contractor, and four robots were routed to Japan. The company lent two PackBots for free. These robots--the PackBot and Warrior--can be operated from over 2,000 feet away. They were used to measure radiation levels, temperatures and other conditions inside the reactors, which were unsafe for humans. iRobot staff trained the Japanese military personnel to operate them.
Although Japan has a sophisticated robotics capability, most of its development is in household applications rather than disaster recovery. Countries such as the United States have developed robots for use in disaster situations because its military funds the development of the devices for war zones. Japan's military development is restricted by the country's post World War II constitution to self defense and activities such as U.N.-led peacekeeping missions.
It's ironic that robot-crazy Japan has had to ask for outside assistance in this critical area!
Sources: Dialog NewsRoom, Dialog Global Reporter, AP News, BusinessWire
Medical innovation has come a long way
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