Fact is often said to be stranger than fiction and in a world where the lines between man and machine are growing ever closer, QBE look at the benefits wearable technologies can play for those who have sustained life changing injuries, as well as the benefits they will undoubtedly bring to all business sectors in the future.
Exoskeletons (wearable robotic technologies) are not a new concept and were first developed in the 1960’s by way of powered arms and legs designed to enable the average person to have ‘strength beyond anything ever seen before’. In reality the ‘Hardiman’ prototype was incredibly bulky and dogged by various technological limitations. It did ‘plant the seed’ however amongst those research facilities that were technologically minded and by the end of the 1960’s ‘gait assistance exoskeletons’ were starting to be developed and tested.
Fast forward to present day and exoskeleton developers are now backed by private investors who see exoskeletons as the future and it is forecast that the exoskeleton industry will be a multi-billion-dollar industry by 2025.
A significant portion of this boom is forecast to be in military applications whereby soldiers will effectively be able to increase their physical capabilities exponentially. The pioneers in the field however report to be keen to maintain the ethos of assisting those affected by disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, stroke, paralysis and general fatigue as well as the elderly so that they can remain independent and autonomous for longer.
Several of the big companies leading the way, (ReWalk Robotics, Ekso Bionics and Cyberdyne), already allow local hospitals and assisted-living facilities to utilise their suits en-masse to enable them to progress their technology and the Wyss institute at Harvard University has developed a light weight walking exosuit that has been licensed for release later this year.
It is this healthcare aspect of exoskeleton development where these leading companies see potential for the biggest growth and this potentially has significant implications in regards to the insurance industry.
The leading manufactures point out however that the costs required to purchase exoskeletons should be balanced again the benefit of getting an injured party self-dependent, therefore potentially reducing total care costs, and also potentially expediting a return to work.
Because the principles behind exoskeleton development or ‘wearable robotics’ are relatively basic, (Generate power to assist movement - using compressed air, a spring mechanism or an electrical motor, which are all built into the system). It was inevitable that this technology, just like the military, would be utilised to enhance the physical capabilities of those who work in manual roles, with manufacturing and industrial businesses leading the way.
Exoskeletons are reported as being the bridge between fully-manual labour and robotic systems whereby “you get the brains of people in the body of a robot” - Dan Kara, research director at ABI Research.
Motor manufactures in America, a global security and aerospace company based in the UK and America and shipbuilding manufactures in Japan are all utilising various types of wearable robotics amongst their staff and US retailer Home Depot has recently tested exoskeletons amongst some staff to aid them when unloading trucks and bringing goods down to the floor.
The benefits of this technology being utilised are already starting to be seen via a reduction of reported work related injuries and significant increases in productivity as well as less fatigue being reported and higher quality work being undertaken. The benefits of wearable robotics don’t stop there however as it is also reported that these devices can extend the life of aging workforces and can also make jobs open to candidates that previously could have only been managed by people of larger, physical stature.
Despite the ethos of those pioneering exoskeleton developments wanting it to remain in the healthcare sector to aid those affected by serious injury or illness, it seems inevitable that exoskeletons will become synonymous with all industrial sectors around the world, in time. Especially as these smaller, portable, wearable robotics cost a fraction of the cost of their medical forerunners and provide significant benefits to employers in relation to the wellbeing of their staff.