For the real robot uprising, look to the disabled

Medical researchers, not defense contractors, are delivering the first wave of wearable robotics.

Robotic augmentation suits like Raytheon's cleverly marketed XOS-2 ("It's a real-life Iron Man!") grab headlines because, well, they're pretty cool. But they're also military-grade science experiments, many years from deployment and hardly intended for civilian use. Meanwhile, researchers around the world are designing robo-suits for an entirely different purpose: to help those that can't walk, walk.

This video from New Scientist introduces us to one Amanda Boxtel, who lost the use of her legs 18 years ago to a skiing accident. With the help of a robotic exoskeleton called eLEGS, she's finally able to walk again. The suit is battery-powered, untethered, and partially balanced by crutches. With it, Amanda is truly mobile. And from granting immediate freedom of movement to the permanently disabled, the machine is also useful for physical therapy.

The creator of eLEGS, Berkeley Bionics, doesn't expect its product to hit the market until at least 2011, and its price tag will likely touch $100,000. (This sounds high, but would likely be covered, at least in part, by insurance companies.) The real story, though, is that they're not alone. Robotic augmentation for the disabled (or even elderly) has graduated from a fledgling concept to a burgeoning one, with upstarts and engineering giants alike pouring millions of dollars into everything from stilts to full suits. A few examples:

  • The ReWalk, from Isreali company Argo Medical Technologies, which splints a pair of electrically powered struts against weakened legs. The company expects to get FDA approval for the product in the next year or so.
  • The Honda Stride Management belt hugs users' thighs, powering them fore and aft, which helps improve lifting power and balance.
  • For a slightly different type of help, the Honda Walk Assist legs help lift users' feet, making repetitive lifting tasks easier for anyone, and basic walking easier for those with weakened legs.
  • Rex Bionics, out of New Zealand, has designed a set of large, powerful bionic legs able to fully support a paraplegic wearer. They're controlled with joysticks and buttons at the user's fingertips.

There's a lot more to talk about in robotic assistance; I've focused on mobility here, and concepts like the Robosoft Kompai robotic companion have massive potential as well.

Defense-related research will obviously continue to to forge ahead, and you can expect to read about some truly wild exoskeleton-style technology over the next decade. But the first robo-suit-adorned humans you're likely to meet in real life won't be firing lasers from their palms or punching through brick walls--they'll just be going about their business, enjoying their newest prescription.

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