This might be the beginning of the end for the bulky, rigid exoskeletons we’ve come to know and love. ReWalk Robotics has partnered with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University to expedite development of Wyss’ lightweight, soft exosuit.
This is an interesting partnership as the two companies have taken a much different approach to designing exoskeletons. ReWalk’s exoskeletons feature the typical bulky backpack and were quite heavy – although the newer ReWalk 6.0 exoskeleton dropped the power-hungry backpack to make the exoskeleton a little lighter.
The Wyss Institute, on the other hand, designed its exosuit with soft materials woven into a piece of smart clothing and pulled up like a pair of pants. The suit mimics the action of leg muscles and tendons when a person walks, using compact, powerful actuators packaged in a belt to provide assistance to the wearer’s legs. As the Wyss Institute points out, “for many stroke, MS, and elderly patients who can move partially on their own, the assistive and elegant movements of the lighter weight, flexible, soft exosuit could be used to overcome mobility limitations in their lower extremities.”
“This is a very exciting day for the soft exosuit technology,” said Conor Walsh, Ph.D., who is a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab.
ReWalk, of course, has more experience working with patients. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs in December 2015 announced that it will cover the cost of ReWalk’s powered exoskeleton for eligible paralyzed veterans. The exoskeleton costs $69,500 and was too expensive for many injured veterans. According to NPR, ReWalk has so far determined 45 paralyzed veterans meet the criteria for the exoskeleton and have begun the enrollment process.
The VA policy is the first national coverage policy in the US for qualifying individuals who have suffered spinal cord injuries. The policy provides eligible veterans access to referral and evaluation at all designated ReWalk Training Centers across the country. Eligible veterans will be referred for training on the use of the device, and successful candidates will then be eligible to obtain a ReWalk Personal system.
“ReWalk brings commercialization expertise and experience in the area of wearable robotics and complements our translation-focused research,” said Conor Walsh, Ph.D., who is a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute and founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab. “Ultimately this agreement paves the way for this technology to make its way to patients.”
Currently in the United States, there are an estimated 3 million stroke patients and 400,000 MS patients who are suffering from limited mobility due to lower limb disabilities.
“There is a great need in the health care system for lightweight, lower-cost wearable exoskeleton designs to support stroke patients, individuals diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and senior citizens who require mechanical mobility assistance,” said Larry Jasinski, CEO of ReWalk. “This collaboration will help create the next generation of exoskeleton systems, making life-changing technology available to millions of consumers across a host of patient populations.”