New lower-cost, powerful exoskeleton first step to bionic future

1 Feb 2016

Phoenix exoskeleton image via Erica Zeidenberg/Flickr

A new exoskeleton – a robotic suit worn by a person to greatly increase their abilities – that aims to turn manufacturing and medical workers into bionic robots has been unveiled.

The new exoskeleton comes from the minds in suitX, a robotics company in the US that designs for the sectors, which has christened it Phoenix, as it will give the user a whole new lease of life, at least when it comes to their work.

The very concept of an exoskeleton still remains a very forward-looking, almost science-fiction concept, with very few exoskeletons being used in day-to-day work, largely due to costs that would bankrupt the average business.

This hasn’t stopped Irish researchers getting in on the act, though, with the University of Limerick (UL) revealing in April 2015 that it was developing a cutting-edge exoskeleton to assist older adults under the AXO-SUIT project.

Slow, but powerful

SuitX, however, is claiming that its new Phoenix concept costs as much as four-times less than a current exoskeleton, though with a still-hefty price tag of $40,000 (€37,000) per unit, while also being the lightest on the market weighing in at 28lbs (13kg).

To put this into perspective, the average soldier heading into a warzone – like those most recently in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq – would wear up to 100lbs (45kg) of gear at a time.

In terms of its specifications, the Phoenix exoskeleton is comprised of a hip module, two knee modules and two feet modules, which, SuitX says, gives it much greater mobility as there’s less area covering the body with moving parts.

The suit is unlikely to win any foot races with a human, however, with a top speed of just under 2kph and a battery life of four hours if continuous walking, or eight hours with intermittent use.

Phoenix exoskeleton Rome

Phoenix exoskeleton in a field test. Image via Erica Zeidenberg/Flickr

The software seems mighty impressive, however, with SuitX saying that it was developed following years of research at the Human Engineering and Robotics Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

The software is quite customisable, too, with a companion Android app allowing for modifications of all the engineering parameters.

Using robotics for good

While the Phoenix will launch in March of this year, the same technology is being put towards the upcoming Robotics for Good competition with the aim of developing technologies that would lead to an exoskeleton that would quickly promote walking skills among children affected by neurological conditions like cerebral palsy and spina bifida, in which walking is difficult or impossible.

“We started SuitX out of our passion to develop low-cost consumer bionic products to improve the quality of life for people around the world,” said the company’s founder, Dr Homayoon Kazerooni.

“We have tackled problems associated with design, human-machine interface (HMI), actuation, power management and control during the development of our medical exoskeletons.  We designed Phoenix based on the fact that the technology can be used for children.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic