Thanks to the advances in the technology in mechanical, biomedical and electronic engineering and artificial intelligence, the robotic exoskeleton technology have witnessed a rapid development over last 10 years. Exoskeletons or wearable robots, powered by motors or hydraulics, exhibit a close cognitive and physical interaction with the wearer to assist him in delivering part of the energy for limb movements. The main applications of exoskeletons are in the military (15%), manufacturing (25%) and medical (60%) industries.
Even though the exoskeletons are not deployed at wide scale, companies have been developing many working prototypes (TRL 5-7). Almost half health exoskeleton are in early research stage (53%), and 27% are abandoned when facing clinical trials[i]. Commercially available health exoskeleton (TRL 8-9) represent only 7% and, the market is mainly driven by Prosthesis and Elderly-Assistive industry.
Here we are featuring some innovative exoskeleton startups.
Manufacturing and Construction industry.
SkelEx is a Dutch scale-up that since Q4 2017 has launched to market a non-powered upper-body exoskeleton to assist workers (TRL 8-9). This compact and lightweight device assists in doing laborious jobs involving the intensive and repetitive use of arms more efficiently with less fatigue. The exoskeleton works on energy stored in springs to compensate for gravity, so arms and tools feel weightless without the need for any motors or external power
Laevo is also another Dutch company that has developed a wearable back supportive exoskeleton, designed to prevent or reduce (low) back pain (TRL 8-9). The wearable device which supports bent-forward work and repetitive lifting movements, reliefs the load on the back when working or moving around, trying to prevent backaches. The portable structure lessens the relative weight of the upper body and reduces the load on the lower back, transferring force from the rest to the thighs
Wandercraft is a French startup; developing lower-limb exoskeleton (Atalante) to recover mobility. The device uses dynamic robotics algorithms and a system with 6 motors and 12 robotic joints to reproduce a natural walk. The structure of the exoskeleton is simplified and lightened with the advantage of producing movements at the ankle that is closer to the natural movements of man. This is one of the first exoskeletons to allow autonomous realistic walk (without crutches). Wandercraft is currently ending all trials necessary to CE marking in actual Rehab Centers and to be on the market in December 2018 (TRL 8-9)
Humexe, developed by Tecnimusa is wearable robot assisting people with spinal cord injury (TRL 6). In this case, no pre-programming is required, and the movement is generated by the individual himself while walking, making it possible to walk again in an autonomous and simple way.
Driver for new emerging startups.
Increasing prevalence of nervous system trauma and orthopaedic disorders are crucial factors that are likely to drive the usage of exoskeletons in the healthcare industry. Whereas the weight and price of exoskeletons are restraining the market. Making health insurance companies cover for exoskeletons, and continuous evolution of batteries, high-density storage systems and lightweight structural materials can turn out to be huge opportunities. Thus, rising investments and funding for R&D to develop more accessible and affordable mobility solutions is a good driver to see new emerging startups.
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[i] Slavka Viteckova, Patrik Kutilek, Marcel Jirina, Wearable lower limb robotics: A review, Biocybernetics and Biomedical Engineering, Volume 33, Issue 2,2013