1. What is an exoskeleton?

  1. Definition of an exoskeleton
  2. Exoskeletons, also known as robotic combinations, are mechatronic devices external to the human skeletal structure and whose purpose is in particular to help people in their daily tasks. They are used in specific areas as we will discover in this article.

    How does it work? The device attaches itself around the body of the user, just touching the upper or lower part of the body or covering it entirely, and allows, among other things, to enhance physical capacities. It is also used to re-educate the muscular and skeletal systems, or to remotely control robotic systems and protect the person from his or her environment like an improved  bulletproof vest.

    Let’s find out more about their use.

    1. In which trades can exoskeletons be used primarily?

    Exoskeletons have multiple uses, making them advantageous in many areas, mainly in the military, logistics or even healthcare, enabling soldiers, workers or caregivers to carry heavy loads with ease. They are also very developed in the medical sector, particularly in rehabilitation and increasingly helping people in wheelchairs in their daily lives.

    These devices may also be used  professionally, in order to relieve users working in difficult physical conditions as gardener or assistants on production lines, but also for remote operations of machines in space, nuclear, and surgical environments.

    Exoskeletons could also accompany increased virtuality for play purposes as an improved joystick.

    1. Concretely, what is the purpose of the exoskeleton and for whom?

    Exoskeletons are mainly mechanical structures that wrap around those of the human skeleton and give it physical capacities that it does not have, thanks to a system simulating artificial muscles.

    The research is mainly in the military and the medical fields, which, despite the high cost, is determined to create superhuman soldiers of the future relying on exoskeletons, and to use this device as a means of restoring the ability to walk or lift objects to persons with motor disabilities.

    In the military domain, motorized exoskeletons of robotic combat armour amplify and protect soldiers on the battlefields. The goal is to increase the physical and perceptual characteristics of an average human being, giving the individual capabilities that he would not have without, and which would reduce physical fatigue and risk of muscle injuries in combat.

    In the medical field, the goal is to rehabilitate and restore a maximum of motor functions after the trauma to the body through progressive and continuous robotic learning. However, rehabilitation is not the only use for exoskeletons in this sector. For several years, research has focused on the daily lives of people with motor disabilities in order to create a device to facilitate their everyday. Exoskeletons then prove their usefulness although the latter remain in constant evolution.

    1. The first exoskeletons (testimonies, examples)

    Until very recently, the use of an exoskeleton had to be accompanied by crutches for support, generating tension not least on the shoulders of the person carrying it, but also making the use of this technology impossible for quadriplegics.

    The French start-up Wandercraft presented a walking exoskeleton intended for paralyzed people that no longer required the use of crutches.

    The machine manages the balance through on-board electronics and is driven by movement of the bust. At rest, the user is initially in the right position. When it leans forward, the exoskeleton enters a phase of walking and reaches a speed of 3.5 km/h. When the user stops bending, the exoskeleton finishes the started step and stabilizes.

    Floriane was one of the first patients to test Atalante, or the “world’s first robot walker who self-stabilizes without a crutch or walker.” After spending years in a wheelchair, the young woman delights in the moment. “The feeling of rising for the first time is extraordinary!” “It’s amazing to be at the same height as others, to have your hands free and to stand up effortlessly.”

    However, even today, the majority of exoskeletons require support through crutches. This is the case for Ekso Bionics, a Californian company which produced 75 copies of one of these machines and allowed Amy Paradis, wheelchair-ridden for four years after an accident, to take new steps.

    Worldwide, 250 similar exoskeletons are in circulation allowing paraplegics, who have lost the use of their legs, to regain their mobility. They allow individuals like Simon Kindleysides, a paralyzed leg athlete who participated in the London Marathon with an exoskeleton, to relieve their disability.

    On the military side, many machines have been designed with the aim of improving human capabilities while protecting the user from external danger.

    In collaboration with B-TEMIA, Lockheed-Martin obtained sufficient funds to develop and test the ONYX exoskeleton. “ONYX is an exoskeleton powered for lower limbs and equipped with artificial intelligence to increase human strength and endurance. This device minimizes overload on the back and legs. Using electromechanical knee actuators, a series of sensors and an AI computer, ONYX assimilates the user’s movements and provides the right torque at the right time to help them climb steep slopes and lift or pull heavy loads.” The machine is still in early testing phase, but the first objective is adapting the module to each soldier’s morphology in order to allow comfortable use.

    Comfort is the first objective.

    Another interesting example in the military sector is the TALOS project’s armour of the future. This armour is an exoskeleton with a flexible nanotechnology mesh. The purpose of this mesh is to harden to the extreme in case of danger. The point is not to interfere with the soldier while in action. TALOS will also have an ultra-connected combat system: antennas, sensors, electronic microcircuits, all of which will allow soldiers to be permanently connected, and receive essential information such as a non-stop communication, enemy terrain positions, their own position, weather, maps… Talos will also allow users to fly drones or robots connected to specific attacks.

    There are also machines combining effort support with medical effort, such as HAL. HAL combines voluntary and autonomous control to simplify the rehabilitation process with the amplification of a user’s strength by a factor of 10, supporting on the one hand its own weight and on the other, that of the carrier during movement.

    Thanks to these exoskeletons, users can carry heavy loads with less physical effort, contributing significantly to reducing fatigue, and musculoskeletal disorders which affect some 44 million workers in the EU.

    These problems are consequences imposed by difficult working conditions due to high cadence, prolonged posture, but also excessively heavy loads or repetitive movements over time.

    Too little recovery time, resulting in physical fatigue exacerbated by stress.

    The benefit of the exoskeleton is obvious, as a means of improving the working conditions of employees, including caregivers who have to regularly carry sick people, as well as lift them up, help them maintain themselves, and stand up As Leonard O’Sullivan, an ergonomics specialist, says: “We don’t want to make superheroes. We just want to develop an assistant for workers in their daily tasks and that keeps them healthy.”