June 08, 2016      

The tight-fitting, 7 lbs wearable robot packs powerful capabilities

Target price point per full suit: $1,000
For sure when the Red Bull creative team sits down to begin developing its next big thing in the world of sport’s “X-excitement” and mega-extreme TV events, enthusiasm will run sky-high for a new company with a new product that has just appeared on the “Hey, dude, check this out scene” in Silicon Valley. Superflex’s exosuit is a tight-fitting, lightweight, wearable robot that looks like something worn by a buffed-out Marvel superhero.

A Superflex suit weighs all of seven pounds, with the two one-pound motors strapped to the lower half of each leg capable of adding 250 pounds of force to the legs wearing them.

The exosuit enables the wearer to do what humans aren’t supposed to be able to carry a 50-lb. backpack full of sand all day.

The Red Bull folks are going to have fun building a mega-event around super human physical abilities. How about a simple task like kicking 100-yard field goals?

End-zone to end-zone field goals are far from the original purpose that roboticist Roy Kornbluh and his team have for their exosuit after spending a decade developing Superflex at SRI International’s (SRI) Menlo Park facility. Assisting soldiers in the field or enabling people with lower-body injuries to walk was the intention for the power suit.

The “Exoskeleton Report” said that “SRI Robotics is working on two novel exosuits and new 4D materials that can make it easier to power and operate them.

By 4-D material, it means that a three-dimensional object can change its properties over time. For example, the SRI team said it is “working on soft layered sheets that can bend and twist, but with applied electric voltage, the sheets are stopped from sliding, producing a rigid structure.”

Kornbluh, in an interview with Fusion, said Superflex “wants to transform robot bodies so they feel and behave more like soft biological systems.”

Exo-muscle goes commercial

Superflex exosuitSRI spun the wearable robot into startup mode as Superflex Inc. in late April, making Superflex the sixth company that is working with exoskeleton technology in that part of California. The Bay Area is undoubtedly the global hub for exoskeleton technology and development.

Longtime director of SRI Robotics, Rich Mahoney, will helm the new company. “The key things that we developed are highly efficient motors and transmissions,” he said.

Lightweight yet powerful are two of the keys as to why SRI and Mahoney see great commercial potential.

Manish Kothari, head of SRI Ventures, said he thinks the time is right for Superflex to go to market.

“From a venture point of view, one thing I noticed was that the costs have been brought down and the functionality has been brought up,” he said. “We’re really, in robotics, at that focal point where it’s more about usability, reliability, and maintainability. That’s really the right time to switch from an R&D type model to a commercialization model.”

“There’s a lot of interest in this area,” Mahoney told TechCrunch, “a lot of expectations, of robotics and wearable robotics. SRI is a critical part of the innovation process, but you can’t create a product without engaging with the market and responding to real customers.”

Writing in the SRI blog over a year ago, Kornbluh summed up the “why now” for soft robotics:

“We are now seeing fundamental changes in the field where improvements in materials are literally reshaping robotics. The new trend is moving towards ‘soft robotics,’ driven by improved capabilities, lower costs, and increased safety for human interaction.”

“The SRI Robotics Program is at the forefront of this movement, with innovative materials technologies that are changing the way many types of industrial, medical, consumer, automotive, and aerospace robots are powered and operated. Key SRI technologies at the heart of this evolution are electroactive polymers or “artificial muscles,” electroadhesion gripping, and electrolaminates.”

And “it just feels like normal clothing,” added Kate Witherspoon, SRI’s textile expert and one of the exosuit’s developers. “But when it’s powered on, it just gives you that little boost.”

Exosuit gives a boost, just like Red Bull?

Witherspoon went on to explain that “if you make the ‘muscles’ smaller and put them in more locations on the body, all of a sudden you can do really compound movements and you can assist the body in new ways. That’s going to be the wave of the future.”

“There’s opportunity to create products that will enhance performance, maybe like for extreme sports kinds of scenarios, but there are just so many people that don’t have good options for living a normal life, in terms of their mobility and the ways they can engage with the world,” Mahoney said. “There’s a preference for us to really do something worthwhile with this technology.”