We’re only human. We age, we get injured, some of us suffer from chronic conditions and many of us get hurt in accidents. But wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t, or at least the consequences of such accidents and misfortune weren’t so grave? That’s where bionics is taking us.
The ultimate wearable tech, these robo-inspired devices don’t just strap a new watch to your wrist, but a new wrist to your arm. It’s technology that helps severely injured soldiers relearn to walk and stroke victims get their co-ordination back.
It’s moving away from such specialist use cases too. Instead, starting to turn ordinary Joes and Janes into Iron Man and Woman, turn the timid into Terminators and most importantly, deliver life-changing benefits to people around the world. Here are eight organisations bringing (wo)man and machine together in perfect harmony.
Touch Bionics (Livingston, Scotland)
A spin-off from the Scottish National Health Service, Touch Bionics became a standalone business in 2003. Its 2014 i-limb was hailed as the world’s most advanced prosthetic hand at the time, and is something of an advanced appendage pop star: Touch Bionics supplied a prosthetic hand for the Scream & Shout video by Will.i.am and Britney Spears, and it’s also been seen on fashion catwalks and in advertising campaigns welcoming visitors to Scotland.
More recently, an even better version of the i-limb has been released. The i-limb quantum is faster, stronger, smaller and can change grip style with simple gestures. Like any gadget worth its weight, it’s also programmable via an iPhone app for doctors and users, and can use ‘chip grips’, which are little Bluetooth sensors you can place on parts of a home or office to automatically adjust the i-limb’s grip – for example to better grip a tap.
The technology may be cutting edge, but Touch Bionics has a very long history; its technology started its development back in 1963 at the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh. Today, the city boasts the Edinburgh Robotics Centre, a joint venture between two of the city’s universities to drive robotic and bionic research and development.
ReWalk Robotics (Maryland, USA)
The ReWalk Personal System is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that can enable people with spinal cord injuries and conditions such as Spina Bifida to stand, walk, turn and even climb stairs. With more than half a dozen versions having been rolled out, it’s a take on the ReWalk Rehabilitation exoskeleton, which is designed for clinical use and which helped paralysed British woman Claire Lomas become the first person to finish a marathon using a bionic suit in 2012.
The system is the brainchild of Israeli entrepreneur Dr Amit Goffer, who became quadriplegic after a vehicle accident in 1998, and the company has been described by some investors as “the next Tesla”.
If it can drive down its costs and persuade insurance companies to help subsidise the units, which currently come in at over $70,000 a pop, ReWalk could change the lives of tens of thousands of people. And bring mobility to everyone from the injured to the elderly.
Open Bionics (Bristol, England)
With cost a common issue, Open Bionics is using 3D printing to help drive down the significant costs of prosthetic limbs. Looking to “arm the masses” with affordable, life-changing prosthetics, the company wants to help the more than 114 million global hand amputees move away from the simple prosthetics such as hooks that still dominate the space.
To do this, it’s using medical-grade materials to manufacture prosthetic hands costing less than £650, which is an extraordinarily low price for such a complicated device. By comparison, i-limb-type devices can cost tens of thousands of pounds. The designs – which are the brainchild of Joel Gibbard’s – use off-the-shelf DC motors connected to tell tendons with 3D-printed plastic bones and a rubber coating, all controlled via stick-on electrodes.
It’s not all boring plastic and bland design, either. Aware that prosthetics can be something many want to hide, Open Bionics has created a range of custom designed limbs for kids. Helping people become proud of their prosthetics, Iron Man, Frozen and Star Wars-themed arms have all been created. The company even managed to get Disney to wave its lofty licensing fees in order to brighten the lives of kids in need.
OSSUR – (California, America)
It’s not just smart limbs that are advancing, but the way the rest of the human body can integrate with them too. Back in 2015 Ossur became the first company to allow amputees to control their bionic prosthetic legs with nothing more than their thoughts.
Taking futuristic tech to the space age, tiny implanted myoelectric sensors were surgically placed in the residual muscle tissue of the prosthesis wearers. Responding to signals sent from the brain through the nervous system, it allowed users to trigger desired movements with no conscious effort, with the signal picked up by a received within the prosthesis itself.
The result is prosthetic legs that feel like a more natural extension of the body. The technology can be used to allow wearers to better adjust their walking style and more naturally traverse a wide range of terrains at a variety of speeds. Ultimately, wearers no longer need to think about their movements, with the unconscious responses making the bionic limb act like a natural one.
Ekso Bionics (California, USA)
Ekso Bionics’ exoskeleton was originally designed to help injured soldiers and people with paralysis or limb weaknesses to walk and lift things naturally, but it’s branching out. The Ekso Work Suit hopes to bring exoskeletons to a construction site near you.
Unlike other exoskeletons – and unlike Ekso’s own rehabilitation suits – the Work Suit doesn’t have any electronics, or motors, or batteries; it uses gravity and clever design similar to the famous Steadicam camera mount to make heavy power tools feel weightless. It isn’t cheap – prices have been set at $12,000 – but turning an ordinary worker into a superhero is priceless.
Construction isn’t the only industry Ekso is involved in. It also built the HULC, a US Defense Department-funded exoskeleton for soldiers, and it’s licensed some of its technology to Lockheed Martin for commercial and military applications. The big question around the Work Suit is whether firms will actually use it. Ekso thinks they will, because construction is expanding while the workforce is getting older, and there are applications in the emergency services too.
US Army Research Lab (Delaware, USA)
The news that the military is interested in bionic tech is hardly surprising – we’ve already seen the US Hulc exoskeleton for soldiers, and the Chinese 202 Institute of China Ordnance Industry Group has been showing similar exoskeletons that could enable soldiers to carry extremely large, heavy weapons while wearing exceptionally strong armour.
But bionics aren’t just about turning soldiers into ambulatory armoured vehicles. They can make them more effective too.
MAXFAS (Mobile Arm eXoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization), which is currently a proof-of-concept prototype, takes technology designed for rehabilitating stroke victims and uses it to improve soldiers’ shooting.
With soldiers often having to shoot in very tiring and stressful situations, throwing off even the best marksman’s aim, and MAXFAS prevents that from happening. It works much like optical image stabilisation in a camera: it detects tremors and stabilises the wearer’s arm. It’s currently too bulky for battlefield use, but of course the Army is working on that.
BeBionic (Texas, America)
Bionics aren’t just about pure grunt and superhuman strength. BeBionic is specialising in tech that’ll take you from heavy lifting to more delicate jobs without needing to switch to a different attachment. As a result, it’s latest hand, the bebionic3 is another to vie for the mantle of the world’s most advanced prosthetic.
With lifelike finger movements and positional joints, it boasts 14 different grip patterns, with the artificial hand capable of grasping objects with up to 140 Newtons of force and automatically tightens when it senses objects are slipping or coming loose. Despite each finger being capable of lifting 25kg of weight – trying doing that with your own hand – it’s also precise enough to hold cutlery or even pick a flower.
Again, aesthetics as well as advancements have been taken into account here, with BeBionic having crafted its latest prosthetic in large, medium and now even small hand sizes.
DARPA – (Virginia, USA)
You can forget camo, these exoskeletons are the future of military war wear. With DARPA, the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency joining the US Army in working on futuristic bionics, the defence agency has started trialling battery powered exoskeletons that turn regular soldiers into future fighting machines.
Dubbed the Warrior Web, the device, which weights a little under 40lbs and attaches to the soldier’s back and legs, allows the wearer to walk, run and climb farther and faster without expelling additional energy.
A cameo backpack hides the inner working, with its own inbuilt computer allowing the exo to read leg movements, throwing in a hydraulic boost to enhance movements without throwing wearers off balance. It might seem like something straight from the latest Call of Duty, but it’s the next reality, a device that will spawn a new wave of super soldiers, and one that could be hitting battlefields within a matter of years.