Powered Exoskeletons Could Replace Wheelchairs One Day
When you hear the word exoskeleton, you probably think of an insect’s hard carapace or Iron Man’s suit—a sort of body-sheath that lends its wearer superhuman powers. But for years, Ekso Bionics has crafted their own exoskeletons, wrap-around metal braces with motors and a CPU backpack that allow paraplegics to walk again. (Their other suits, designed for construction, help skinny journalists heft 40-pound tools with ease.)
Matt Tilford spent three years in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. Now, he’s a test pilot for one of Ekso’s suits. His exoskeleton provides him with external support, but allows him to use his own bones to stand up and hold his weight. When Tilford presses a button, the suit replicates muscle movement by lifting his legs for him, so he can get around on his own two robo-assisted feet.
These bionic suits aren’t too far from the mass market, either. The FDA’s already approved a similar device, and once these suits get more lightweight, they could replace wheelchairs altogether. “I see a future for exoskeletons where people are grabbing them out of the garage to go on a run through the mountains,” says Russ Angold, a co-founder of Ekso. Tilford, for his part, has bright visions for his own future: a normal, active life.
Chances are, your body and brain operate seamlessly with each other. You decide to move your big toe, say, and a split second later, it moves. But even a simple toe-twitch isn’t easy for people who’ve been paralyzed. Which is why Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroengineer at Duke University, has been developing exoskeletons that translate electrical signals from the wearer’s brain into mechanical instructions. Basically, mind-controlled robot suits.
Each thought in your brain is a set of neurons firing—what Nicolelis calls a “brainstorm”—and that barrage of signals makes it tricky to tease out the ones that code for movement. Nicolelis’ lab started small, harnessing the mental power of monkeys and rats. (In this video, even a monkey gets an adorable robo-scooter suit, which it uses to fetch food from across the room.) Now that he’s got the basics down, though, Nicolelis is strapping paraplegics into his suits, which read the patients’ intentions with EEG caps and move accordingly.
That’s cool, because these suits could help paralyzed patients regain some measure of independence and feel less helpless. “Once you get the brain outside the physical limits of the body,” Nicolelis says, “the limit is the imagination.” Cheesy, maybe. But Nicolelis has seen his share of inspirational moments: A patient kitted out in one of his suits helped kick off the 2014 World Cup.
If you’re holding a bunny, you can feel the fluffy fur and the warm body in your hands. You can also gauge how hard you’re holding it. But if you have a prosthetic arm or hand, you have to be super vigilant holding cute, furry creatures—since you can’t feel the amount of force you’re exerting, you run the risk of crushing them. Well, unless your prosthetic has an upgrade from SynTouch, a company that has built and perfected robotic fingers with the sense of touch.
Vikram Pandit, a prosthetics research engineer at SynTouch, was born without a hand and he says that the robotic fingers, called BioTac, will make his prosthetic easier and more intuitive to use. “It allows you to pay significantly less attention to manipulating fragile objects like an egg than with a non-sensorized prosthetic hand,” says Pandit.
His company’s robotic fingers take their shape and function from their human counterparts. They are about the half the length of an index finger, with one knuckle in the middle. Above the knuckle, the robotic fingertip has a blue rubber-like skin with ridges, which encases a fluid layer, a strip of electrodes, and a temperature sensor. On the back, a plastic rectangle acts as a fingernail, which is important for sensing force. (Try pressing your thumb and index finger together: You can see your skin change shape but your fingernails act as walls, measuring the force of what they’re pushing against.)
When the BioTac holds an egg, the movement of the fluid inside tells the sensors the location and magnitude of the fingers’ forces, and stops before it goes too far. And if you feel like stroking the egg, sensors can record vibrations from the ridges to be translated into texture information for the hand. In the video, Pandit makes an omelet with eggs, tomatoes, peppers, and mushrooms, a task he says would have taken much longer without sensitized fingers. “It’s basically going to allow me to move through my day quicker and faster and more like someone who has two hands,” says Pandit.
In this week’s episode of Cyborg Nation, five guys make a shark swim through the air—with their minds. Every time you raise an eyebrow or think a thought, electrical signals zoom through your brain. Electrodes on your head can pick those signals up and transmit them to a computer. And if the computer is paired with a shark, you can totally make that thing shake its tail fin.
OpenBCI, a company based in Brooklyn, is dedicated to making these so-called brain computer interfaces (BCIs) available to anyone who wants to take a crack at controlling machines with their minds. The set-up is pretty simple: You connect electrodes to a small, battery-powered circuit board, which records your body’s electrical signals and sends them to the program running on the computer.
At their first hackathon, OpenBCI plays with a few fun interfaces. In one, you can make a robotic arm move by flexing your own arm. Another shows three people working together to make three robot spiders skulk along a table. And in a third, five guys independently think of five separate commands—dive, swim, climb, left, right—to control an inflatable shark moving through the air.
On their website, OpenBCI has made the hardware design and interface software open source, and with a bit of handiness and access to a 3-D printer, you could be controlling—and tinkering with—robot arms from the comfort of your own home.
“Innovation happens faster when software and hardware are open source, when people can change and modify it to their desire,” says Joel Murphy, co-founder of OpenBCI. The hope is that anyone can get in on the BCI revolution. All they need is a board, a few electrodes, and the will to make a shark fly.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, every moment matters. First responders often have mere minutes to find survivors buried under collapsed buildings or trapped in earthquake rubble. So Alper Bozkurt, a bioelectrical engineer at North Carolina State University, is recruiting emergency personnel from a speedy but unlikely community: cockroaches.
To build his “cyber cockroaches,” Bozkurt straps tiny backpacks containing microchips onto the insects. As he explains in this episode of Cyborg Nation, after an earthquake, the scientists behind the CyberRoach project can use remote controls to move the bugs in different directions, exploring the nooks and crannies underneath rubble to locate survivors and broadcast their coordinates back to a human rescue team.
CyberRoach is just the start of training insects to bring us information from the spaces humans cannot go; DARPA has started funding research for using beetles as surveillance drones. Interested in training your own roach to spy on your neighbor’s whereabouts? For your next DIY project, buy a CyberRoach kit—no insect included. (For a volunteer subject, try looking under your fridge. On second thought, don’t.)
When Hugh Herr was seventeen, he got trapped in a blizzard while ice-climbing the formidable Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. He lost both his legs to frostbite and gangrene. But only 12 months later, Herr was climbing at the same level as before the accident—and with homemade prosthetics, his skills continued to improve. “I started to climb walls that no one had ever climbed before,” explains Herr. “Some of my colleagues actually threatened to cut their own legs off to achieve the same ‘unfair advantage as me.’”
In the first episode of Cyborg Nation, Herr—who is also head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT Media Lab—explains the power of biomimetic design for prosthetics. His “bionic limb” is designed to mirror how a calf muscle actually functions; sensors facilitate neural reflexes, so a user can make a mechanical body part move with a thought, as in full-bodied movement. As Herr imagines it, through bionic appendages, machines increasingly will become a part of us, both rehabilitating and enhancing our natural abilities.
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