The phrase human exoskeleton sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but like so many other things in the modern world that once seemed like a fantasy, exoskeletons are a reality that is reshaping the life experience of the elderly as we know it.
Recent news stories have outlined the use of exoskeletons in Japan to help older adults remain productive in the workforce longer, and stay physically active well into old age. Japan’s population is somewhat skewed towards older adults with the country having the largest proportion of citizens over the age of 65 of any nation. This situation leaves the elderly unable to receive care and needing machines to step in and help them execute activities of daily living.
Companies around Japan have started competing to create the best suit, taking a number of different approaches. One is a backpack-like suit that is charged by the squeezing of a hand pump that fills the suits muscles which are powered by pressurized air. It allows the user to lift as much as 55 pounds and is available at a cost of roughly $1,300.
Other exoskeletons are being manufactured by household names from other industries such as Panasonic and Toyota. Other suits are aimed at detecting the problems that effect seniors the most, such as falls.
According to a report from the American Journal of Public Health, nearly one-third of adults over the age of 65 report difficulty walking just three blocks. This fact has become the motivation for research into the development of a lightweight exoskeleton that some are calling “powered clothing.” The Defense Area Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded the research in partnership with nonprofit company SRI International, the same people who gave us Siri.
How Do Exoskeletons Work?
The powered clothing example has developed into a product of its own called Superflex, defined as an elastic muscle technology. Originally designed to help soldiers carry their gear and experience lower levels of fatigue, Superflex resembles a wetsuit that holds an onboard computer to ensure that the suit performs in collaboration with your actual muscles.
A Harvard project is focused on building an exoskeleton capable of helping stroke patients rebuild their strength and fluidity of movement. The suit has already entered clinical trials.
Other versions of the lightweight robotics target specific conditions or movements, whether that’s helping a paraplegic kick a soccer ball or cerebral palsy patients walk. The devices are often times sewn directly into the user’s clothing and help stimulate the correct motions.
In the case of Active Pelvis Orthosis (APO), the technology consists of a waist brace and motors connected to the hips which move light weight links that connect to thigh braces. Using an algorithm developed to monitor the person’s natural leg movements, the system can detect changes in the person’s gait which indicate a fall is starting to occur. The motors then create force to help the legs avoid the fall.
Many devices are still in development while others are as far as seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration. As this field of research begins to blossom and yield real results, expect to hear more about the potential for exoskeletons to help the elderly stay active for longer.