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Support : eNewsletters : Eye on Innovation : Issue 3, June 2011

Eye on Innovation

Reimagining the human body—Innovations resulting from military research bring good news to the disabled

Robot ExoskeletonFrom 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.

WheelchairWith 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
Since the 1980s we've seen robots outside of the factory: the Roomba that cleans your floor, the PackBot that helps soldiers find and safely neutralize or destroy roadside bombs in Iraq and the drones targeting terrorists in Afghanistan. In fact, nothing is as truly robotic as the latest automotive innovations such as in-car navigation/entertainment/communication systems and the adaptive cruise control and "lane aware" driver alerting from sensors. All fascinating stuff!

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
Robot ExoskeletonFor military research dollars, the goal is technology to help win wars and protect soldiers. But, there are often other benefits to help people at a personal level that surface through the millions of dollars spent. The exoskeleton is one of these innovations.

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." ( 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
Searching Dialog's trademark and patent collection provides a peek into the future of this billion dollar industry. For example, using Dialog's specific indexing, we can locate trademarks a company intends to use such as Power Up and ELEGS from Berkeley Bionics and ROBOT SUIT HAL, CYBERNIC LIMB, and CYBER POD from Cyberdyne Inc. Some of these trademarks were applied for as early as 2007 while others like BIOM and Inspired by Nature from iWalk for prosthetic limbs have been recently filed. Could this suggest these trademarks will be used for future inventions? ROBOT SUIT HAL has also been filed in China, South Korea, and with Community Trademarks that encompasses many countries. Is Cyberdyne planning to expand its product outside Japan?

Robot DiagramPatents 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
Exoskeletons are also attracting great attention as a new rehabilitation device. Robotic lower limb exoskeletons have been built to enhance human performance, assisting with disabilities, studying human physiology and re-training motor deficiencies.

Some of the latest exoskeleton innovations to hit the market include:

  • Example 2Rex Bionics, a New Zealand company, has been working on a new robotic exoskeleton for seven years. Recently unveiled, the device has two robotic legs custom-designed for each user, to provide the best possible balance and movement. This exoskeleton is simple and easy to control. A joystick applies pressure to each leg and moves it forward in a timely and balanced fashion, achieving a steady pace. Strapping it on is easy and requires no assistance. It enables many handicapped people to remain self-sufficient, an important feature. The company is in the process of concluding all the tests required prior to putting REX on the market in Europe and Australia. It will also be seeking FDA approval so that REX can be marketed in the U.S.
  • Example 1Re-Walk™, an exoskeleton created by Israel-based Argo Medical Technologies and introduced into Britain by Cyclone Technologies, is now undergoing FDA trials in the United States. ReWalk received certification earlier this year, demonstrating conformity of their product to European Community requirements. Following extensive testing, ReWalk has already been put into use in a specialist spinal injuries unit in Italy, and a consumer version, allowing people to use the system in their own homes, is anticipated for later in the year.
  • Japan's Cyberdyne's robot-suit "HAL" (Hybrid Assistive Limb) is being mass produced at 500 units per year and is available for rent for rehabilitation support.
  • Example 3
  • ELEGS, created by California-based Berkeley Bionics, is an exoskeleton designed to help paraplegics walk. It provides a complete replacement of a natural human gait using the exoskeleton developed for the military. And the exoskeleton suit has been scaled down to reasonable proportions, to provide people with unprecedented mobility options. Advances include wiring existing nerve endings in such a way as to give the wearer true sensation of feeling and touch. Berkeley Bionics has just announced a partnership with ten of the nation's top physical rehabilitation centers.
  • LOPES (LOwer-extremity Powered ExoSkeleton), a 10-year old project from the Netherlands' University of Twente, has as its goal to develop a robotic device to assess motor skills and assist in teaching stroke victims how to walk again. Gait data from LOPES users will be used to help design walking algorithms for autonomous exoskeletons.
  • An exoskeleton power assist suit (PAS) from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology is oriented to elderly Japanese to help them lift and squat while farming their gardens and vegetable plots.

Sources: Inspec®, Inside Conferences

Who's taking the lead?
Several countries (Japan, South Korea, the European Union, etc.) are heavily investing in service and social robotics. They have roadmaps that lay out the science that needs to be tackled before effective products can be produced. And they have national direction and public-private funding to make their plans happen.

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?
Other projects offer possibilities for those who have lost a limb:

  • SmartHand, an EU-funded adaptive intelligent artificial hand that looks and feels like a real hand;
  • Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a DARPA-funded project at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., designed to respond to user's thoughts;
  • PowerFoot One from iWalk, funded by MIT, the Veteran's Administration and the U.S. Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center; and
  • DEKA Arm allowing amputees to control this prosthetic arm just like a real one using their own thoughts. Although not available to the public, it has had successful test runs at the Walter Reed hospital.

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

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Where are the robots in Japan's nuclear crisis?

Japanese RobotIt'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
David Szonday The first serious effort to construct a powered exoskeleton, conducted by General Electric in 1965, was called Hardiman. The goal of the project was to create an exoskeleton a person could use to lift 1,500 pounds. The project failed. Attempts at using the full exoskeleton resulted in violent uncontrolled motion that would have ripped a user apart. The suit itself weighed 1,500 pounds and could only lift 750 pounds when it could move at all. The suit was never turned on with a person inside!

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