Robotic exoskeletons are electromechanical suits that can give paraplegic people the chance to walk again. Full body suits produce impressive results, such as teaching dormant body parts to move on their own again. But they are expensive, ranging from $40,000 to more than $100,000. Now, a Mexican robotics startup is breaking exoskeletons down into smaller pieces, with the goal of making this medical technology affordable and adaptable.
Ernesto Rodriquez Leal, PhD., started WeaRobot in 2014, when a personal dilemma inspired him to turn his robotics research into action. His father started to lose mobility at the end of a 35-year career as a steel worker, and after several surgeries and 3,000 hours of rehabilitation, it was still difficult for him to walk and move his arms properly.
Ernesto tells ZDNet, "So then I started to pay attention to this problem, and I noticed that there were many other people that had the same problem of mobility loss." He saw the potential for exoskeletons to solve the mobility issues that his dad and millions of other people face as a result of trauma, strokes, aging, and other medical conditions.
Between meetings with potential investors, Leal took a few minutes out of a busy day to speak with us about WeaRobot. "We're constantly presenting this company in competitions," he says. "Today we had the opportunity to present to Google for Developers, together with nine other startups. Several investors from the Bay Area are interested in these technologies."
He started WeaRobot at the national robotics laboratory at Technológico de Monterey, one of the leading universities in Latin America. The company focused on upper body mobility issues, unlike most exoskeletons, which mainly service lower body parts. This year, his team was accepted into a highly-competitive accelerator program called TMCx based at the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. The program provides startup companies with shared work space, a curriculum taught by professional investors and subject matter experts, and a mentor network of over 250 advisers.
Approximately 200 startups applied to the program, and WeaRobot is one of just 11 that were accepted, which is a big vote of confidence from the medical community. "We saw it as being very unique in the exoskeleton space," TMCx director, Erik Halvorsen tells us. "They're doing really exciting stuff and we're proud to have them as part of our cohort."
Throughout this five-month program, the vision for WeaRobots has expanded to include pediatrics. Children need exoskeletons to help them recover from trauma or medical conditions such as scoliosis. Coincidentally, Halvorson's daughter has a severe form of scoliosis that led to four back surgeries and forced her to wear a stiff, traditional back brace.
He is hopeful that WeaRobot can be a huge improvement for kids with similar conditions. "I think what Ernesto is building would still give you that physical support, while also allowing them to get an increased range of motion and flexibility," he says. "The modularity of what they're building and how it can be customized to different kids and different extremities is something that really makes it applicable to a whole bunch of situations."
Pediatrics pose a unique set of challenges. "Of course the size of the person is constantly changing," says Leal, "So we are adapting our technology so it can be reconfigurable, and it can be set up accordingly as a person is growing." He says that another difference is that kids are more active than adults, so the pediatric exoskeleton has actuators and joints that can be adjusted to be more flexible when needed.
Whether it is used for pediatric or adult patients, the exoskeleton is modular. This means that it can either be split up and separated into smaller parts, or all of the parts can be connected to form a complete robotic skeleton. It also has a unique control system.
Usually, the joints of exoskeletons have rigid gear systems to increase the torque. Instead, electrodes attached to the user's skin collect signals from the body's muscles. Leal explains, "With the use of artificial intelligence algorithms, we can determine the conditions in which the user requires torque assistance from specific joints."
The current focus of the project is helping people with mobility issues, but in the future, the same baseline design could be used for physical therapy or athletic training. "The exoskeleton is packed with sensors, so you can know the activity, the position, and the orientation of every single joint in the body," Leal says.
The design is meant to make it easier for people to move, but it could also be reconfigured to do the opposite. It can be made passive, to restrict, instead of assist a person's movement. This could be used as a high-tech training exercise for athletes or even as a therapy for astronauts who need to simulate gravity and weight while they are in space.
"So those are several other uses that we have discovered thanks to the help of TMCx mentors and advisors and it has been a wonderful experience," Leal says.
An international patent application is currently under review, which would make WeaRobot the only company that can distribute these devices for the next 20 years.