Ekso Taking Wearable Technology to New Heights

Brian Buntz

March 11, 2014

5 Min Read
Ekso Taking Wearable Technology to New Heights

The merging man and machine has long been a staple of science fiction. The lines between the two are blurring with The Daily Beast declaring last week, in hyperbolic fashion, that "The Pentagon Basically Wants to Merge You With a Robot."

In any event, it is true that technology designed for military applications is often been repurposed to drive innovation in medicine. Surgical robotics, prosthetics, and handheld ultrasound have all benefited from pioneering military research.

An exoskeleton developed by Ekso Bionics (Richmond, CA), which enables the paralyzed to walk, also has a military connection. The technology evolved from a platform known as HULC, an acronym for human load universal carrier. Ekso has licensed the hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton technology to Lockheed Martin.

A visit to Ekso's headquarters reveals how inspired the company is in its goal to help people overcome physical limitations. The company, which was recently named one of MD+DI's "5 Startups Poised to Change MedTech Forever," a list that also includes remote monitoring pioneer AirStrip Technologies, flexible electronics innovator MC10, organ printer Organovo, and intelligent medicine firm Proteus Digital Health.

Ekso made that list by being a trailblazer in bionics and for expanding its products to an increasingly large patient demographic; so far, its technology has been used to help users take more than five million steps that they would not have been able to take on their own. And while it could arguably allow for soldiers with superhuman lifting powers, a whole host of uses in the medical field are imaginable. 

To create the medical version of the device, its developers took the military-grade HULC, and modified the actuation technology while adding new sensing and software functionality. After a medical version of the exoskeleton had been created, its developers believed that, at some point in the future, it could replace wheelchairs for many patients suffering from mobility disorders. Now, however, the company's is focusing on how to expand the scope of the technology to help those who are suffering from any amount of lower-extremity weakness.

At present, the company is working to expand the scope of the technology's applications, to include not just the paralyzed but also those who have suffered from stroke and neurological disorders that interfere with lower limb mobility. The suit can help these users walk and stand. In addition to the emotional benefits of standing and walking, there are therapeutic benefits in helping patients walk, who could be suffering from everything from pneumonia to complete paralysis.

It is fitting that the company's bayfront facility is based at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park. "The innovative 'We can do it!' attitude is important for us," says Heidi Darling, the company's marketing manager.

The company grew out of research performed at the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. Homayoon Kazerooni, PhD, a roboticist who is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has had a mission of developing exoskeleton technology that could marry human intelligence and machine strength. Years before the term "wearable" became a buzzword referring primarily to fitness trackers, Kazerooni was working on what he termed "wearable systems:" upper- and lower-extremity exoskeletons. The technology bears a passing resemblance to the Power Loader exoskeleton technology depicted in the 1986 Aliens film.  

Kazerooni's exoskeleton technology helped extend the domain of robotics. Traditionally, robotics technology has been confined to structured environments where it can be used to perform repetitive tasks. Bringing robotics, tethered to humans, out to the unstructured environment found in the everyday world would require parallel advances in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software.

Funding from the Department of Defense helped advanced the technology and, in 2005, a university spin-off company dubbed Berkeley ExoWorks was founded to bring the exoskeleton technology to the market. The company began to release increasingly sophisticated exoskeletons to enable wearers to carry heavy loads with minimal effort over varied terrain.

Over the years, the company changed its name to Berkeley Bionics and later to Ekso Bionics.

The Ekso system was included in Wired's roundup of the "10 Most Significant Gadgets of 2010" and was included in Time's "The 50 Best Inventions of 2010."

Since then, the company has introduced what it terms "variable assist" technology to its exoskeletons to tailor the amount of power to the needs of each leg. This functionality can be beneficial, for instance, for stroke victims with partial use of one side of the body.  

The company also recently announced the "first ever 3-D printed hybrid exoskeleton robotic suit," which was created in collaboration with 3D Systems an event in Europe. The printed device was demonstrated by Amanda Boxtel, whose body was scanned so that the exoskeleton could conform to the shape of her legs and back.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz and Google+.

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