Science fiction movies showed different ways to give fragile humans more muscle power, protection, and endurance through robotic solutions for years – until they finally appeared in the form of exoskeletons.
Remember Tom Cruise extending his powers by exosuits in The Edge of Tomorrow? Or what about Matt Damon ‘getting a way out’ by turning into a robotic structure himself in Elysium?
These are basically robotic exoskeleton structures that are attached to the joints in order to substitute muscle power when it’s needed. You heard it right. It is called 'exoskeleton'.
In nature, biologists define exoskeleton as a rigid, external covering that supports and protects the body. In contrast, humans--like all mammals--have an endoskeleton.
But, some human engineers practice biomimetics: the art of creating robots that mimic nature. For almost three decades, scientists have explored creating robotic exoskeletons for humans.
Like a crab's natural exoskeleton, an artificial human exoskeleton supports and protects the body. This grants us extra resilience and increases our strength.
As technology advanced, global militaries developed exoskeletons that empower soldiers to lift multi-ton objects. In 2018 he Canadian Armed Forces released a study to illustrate practical applications of robotic capabilities.
Robotic exoskeletons can also improve non-combat labour. Cutting-edge manufacturers have taken note. Toyota supplies workers with upper-body exoskeletons in over 200 car production plants, preventing injuries and improving production.
Now, the latest innovation in the field is ABLE's exoskeleton.
Since 2002, developers have explored exoskeleton applications in medicine. Medical exoskeletons can empower patients with Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI) to walk and engage in therapeutic rehab.
This year, the ABLE exoskeleton has been cleared for clinical trials. Read on to learn how it is, in many ways, a breakthrough in medical exoskeleton technology.
Who May Benefit From the Exoskeleton?
EIT Health designed the ABLE exoskeleton to help SCI patients. Currently, researchers are recruiting for the first clinical trials of ABLE.
They are holding the trials in Germany and Spain. But, patients from all countries may participate if they are eligible for medical visas.
The trial aims to test how safe and effective the ABLE exoskeleton is. It also aims to figure out in which circumstances its feasible to use in everyday life.
The study recruitment profile excludes patients for whom ABLE is unlikely to be a feasible solution. It also highlights who researchers believe will benefit most from ABLE.
The ABLE exoskeleton is for SCI patients. At this stage, eligible patients must be 18-70 years old. Patients of any gender, from any culture, and living at any socioeconomic level might benefit from ABLE.
The biggest hurdle may be empowering patients to get in and out of the exoskeleton. So, currently, ETI is testing ABLE with SCI patients who can:
- follow study procedures
- use their arms to support their body weight on a walking frame
- transfer from sitting to standing (using a frame) without assistance
- tolerate thirty minutes of standing
- move in a sufficient range
This study may inform future exoskeleton adaptations. Hopefully, as engineers create variants and modifications on the exoskeleton, a wider range of SCI patients can benefit.
Engineers suspect certain SCI patients are less likely to get any benefits from ABLE. Or, the risks are significantly higher than likely gains for these patients. So, patients in these categories are excluded from the trial.
First and foremost, the ABLE exoskeleton is only for SCI patients. Some wheelchair users and patients who have mobility disabilities do not have spinal cord injuries. The ABLE exoskeleton is not designed for:
- patients with paralysis induced by seizures or neurological generation
- patients with paralysis due to other medical conditions
- mobility-impaired patients due to chronic pain
- mobility-impaired patients due to muscle weakness
ABLE is designed for SCI patients. But, not all patients in this category are included in the trial either.
Some excluded patients may benefit from future iterations of the ABLE exoskeleton. Still, the following patients are unlikely to see gains from the current device:
- Patients with a Walking Index Score (WISC III) over 16
- Patients with five or more fragility risk factors
- Patients with divergent limb lengths
- Patients with skin reactions
- Patients who've experienced rapid recent motor deterioration (per INSCSCI score)
- Patients with a recent history of limb fragility fractures
- Patients with spine instability
- Pregnant or breastfeeding patients
- Patients whose medical condition is unstable
- Patients with multiple comorbidities
For a complete list of eligibility requirements--and exclusions--see the clinical trial recruitment profile. Note that the current trial is the first of many. Currently excluded patients may be included later.
What Kind of Maintenance Does ABLE's Exoskeleton Require?
The ABLE exoskeleton will not require significant maintenance once it's up and running. But, some mechanical failures are unpredictable.
As such, EIT Health handles all maintenance requests. The ABLE exoskeleton is currently undergoing clinical trials. The developers at EIT take responsibility for any errors that come up.
Hospitals and rehab centers will likely integrate ABLE first. Later, SCI patients may be able to take the exoskeleton home. In both circumstances, professional maintenance and repair may be included in the device's warranty.
Healthcare Technology Maintenance
The field of medical equipment repair is growing. In fact, North American labour departments project the field of medical equipment repair will grow at a rate of 5%.
Medical equipment technicians may work regular shifts at a large system plant. But, others are on-call. It's on-call technicians who repair equipment at home.
Some technicians specialize in a certain category or suite of products. EIT, like most healthcare tech companies, invests in training maintenance technicians who can repair all EIT equipment.
The ABLE exoskeleton will become more popular for daily use as it clears trials. As it does, opportunities for skilled exoskeleton maintenance work will increase.
Workers are increasingly interested in STEM fields that don't require a four-year degree. Exoskeleton repair fits into that category.
Cleaning and Charging ABLE
The ABLE exoskeleton runs on electricity. It encompasses a high-powered Li-Ion battery and a CPU processor. Li-Ion batteries hold charges longer than other batteries.
It is made of lightweight metal alloy and polymer materials. These materials are comparable to wheelchair materials.
The exoskeleton does not touch the skin directly. And, many users will wear the exoskeleton daily. As such, medical professionals recommend cleaning the exoskeleton once per week.
To clean a mobility device, first, make sure it is powered down. Remove the battery, so you don't accidentally get it wet. Cover any exposed battery attachments.
Then, get a compressed air can. Spray compressed air to clear nooks and crannies of any dirt or dust.
After that, get a microfiber cloth and soapy water. Clean all surfaces with soap and water. Pad it dry, or let it air dry.
Finally, disinfect the device. Wipe down all surfaces with a sanitation solution. Make sure the solution is at least 70% alcohol.
Is There A Surgical Procedure Involved?
SCI patients can use the ABLE exoskeleton without surgery. Most exoskeleton technology is entirely external to the body. Many use sensors to read nerve signals through clothes and skin.
In the future, quadriplegic patients may be able to control exoskeleton suits with their minds. Researchers exploring this avenue have, at times, used surgical implants. But, quadriplegic patients cannot currently use the ABLE exoskeleton.
The ABLE exoskeleton reacts to existing muscle movements. It also senses nervous system signals. So, an exoskeleton can "feel" an attempt at a step forward in functional muscles.
It processes this feeling at lightning-fast speeds. This, then, triggers a "step forward" function in the robotic suit.
The exoskeleton's functions are highly precise. The robot's program is made to adapt motion to the movements most natural to an individual user's body.
The ABLE is a set of exoskeleton legs. The robotic legs move through knee and hip motions.
The SCI patient cannot move their hips or knees on their own anymore. The SCI patient's functioning upper-body muscles trigger the ABLE exoskeleton's movements.
How Much Does It Cost?
ABLE is currently not available for sale. Developers will allow patients to pre-order ABLE in 2022. But, pre-orders are contingent on successful clinical trials.
Engineers prioritized keeping costs low when they created ABLE. Current medical exoskeletons cost $67,000-$160,000. The least expensive model is still $40,000.
According to EIT, one chief differentiation between ABLE and other exoskeletons is cost. Individual patients should be able to purchase ABLE.
EIT has not yet released the final price of ABLE exoskeletons to the average customer. In Canada, electric wheelchairs typically range from $1500-$4000. High-end power chairs may run in the $15,000-$16,000 range.
Conversely, manual chairs only cost about $600-$1000. Users push manual chairs with their arms.
Some patients may benefit from Canada's Assistive Devices Program. This program sometimes pays up to 75% of the cost of a mobility aid.
It is not yet clear whether any government health programs will cover the cost of an ABLE exoskeleton. Likewise, private insurers won't say whether they'll cover the cost until the device is eligible for pre-order.
What Are People Saying About It?
EIT has run a publicity campaign hyping the ABLE exoskeleton's potential. In particular, the company highlights how lightweight and affordable the device will be. But, most tech media outlets are taking a "wait and see" stance.
Understandably, science journalists hesitate to report incomplete stories. The first clinical trial is still underway. So, the ABLE exoskeleton story has no real ending.
Tech news outlets like WIRED and The Verge have run stories on exoskeleton tech. But, most have focused on existing medical exoskeletons in hospitals. Or, the hype surrounds the "superhuman" strength granted by military exoskeletons.
The engineering publication IEEE Spectrum has reported on exoskeleton development globally. Specifically, writers highlight the materials and computational processing innovations that make this new generation of exoskeletons possible.
But, IEEE Spectrum has not opined one way or the other regarding EIT's claims. Likewise, exoskeleton reviews in mainstream media pertain to on-market models.
Insurance for Exoskeletons and Everything Else
At Insurdinary, we help Canadians find the insurance they need. Whether you're an SCI patient looking for ABLE's exoskeleton or a homeowner looking for flood insurance, Insurdinary can help.
Contact us today to build a comprehensive insurance plan that fits your budget. Compare quotes and rates from a wide swath of insurers.