“You should come to our office and try on our exoskeleton,” Nathan Harding told me at a group dinner. That is an offer a nerd cannot refuse. So I went.
Harding is CEO of Ekso Bionics, a company that has been making battery-powered exoskeletons for medical and rehabilitation applications. The company’s first products were designed to help the disabled walk. Its current medical devices are used for rehab, to help re-train people to walk who have had their ambulation skills diminished by physical or neurological trauma.
Ekso has also created research products for the military, to help soldiers move fast with the massive amounts of gear they need to carry. These products, like the medical ones, use power to help the wearer move.
But the product I was going to try was, to my mind, even cooler than these wearable semi-robots: It’s an early version of an industrial exoskeleton, designed to help workers use and control equipment that is too awkward or heavy to use for an extended period without tiring the user or causing injury. And it is unpowered. Completely mechanical. Which is amazing.
The Ekso Works is a framework you strap yourself into that mechanically transmits the load of equipment attached to mounts at the hip, directly to the ground. You can walk, you can bend, and the gear is supported by the Ekso frame. The Ekso Works provides skeletal strength. You provide the balance and motivation.
It’s a grind
To set up for my demo, Harding first handed me a 15-pound industrial angle grinder. It’s heavy, awkward, and a pretty uncomfortable piece of gear to control when it’s at arm’s length or overhead. Using one repetitively can cause stress injuries. Or, if you’re a lightweight like me, you’re likely to drop it on your toes after trying to control it for more than a few minutes.
But when the grinder was attached to a Steadicam-like articulated Equipois mount on the Ekso’s hip attachment point, it became weightless. It still had inertia, of course, but it didn’t weigh a thing, and I could wrench it around like it was a six-ounce pair of pliers. I could hold it over my head easily, and control it with precision. If I wanted to use it at arm’s length, I could do that, too; Counterweights attached to the Ekso’s plate on my back kept my center of gravity over my legs.
And I could walk. It was awkward because it was a new physical experience, but it wasn’t difficult. Harding told me that if I came back the next day, I’d be better at it. He said the body processes the learning of new skills during sleep, something tennis and ski instructors know well.
The road to mechanical design
Harding told me the device is the direct result of the company’s earlier powered products. He said that only by iterating on the design of the powered products, and continually figuring out how to reduce the power they needed, were they able to create the purely mechanical version I tried, which, I’ll say again, takes zero external power. (The first Ekso prototype was fully powered and used 5,000 watts just to move around. The rehab device currently on the market uses about five watts.)
One key to all the current Ekso products: The knees. They lock when you’re standing up, just like our real knees. That means that when you’re just standing there, no power input is required. The task of balancing, which does take some energy, is up to the person wearing the device. But as I discovered, even when wearing an elaborate cage of struts and joints, with a spring arm and industrial device strapped to your hip and pounds of steel counterweights on your back, you still know how to balance and walk.
While the Ekso Works looks like simple framework for supporting a user’s weight, Harding says creating the device was made especially difficult by its wearers’ tendencies to change how they use it over time. He told me that Ekso engineers at first underestimated how adaptable people were to this kind of technology, and how rapidly they can change how they use a product. None of Ekso’s first mechanical concepts, he told me, survived actual user testing. Everything the company is making now is based on a lot of testing and iterating.
The Ekso Works industrial exoskeleton will hit the market next year. Pricing has not been set, but online speculators think it’ll run between $10,000 and $20,000.
If you want to build one yourself, sadly you’ll get no help from Ekso. Their mechanical technology is heavily protected by patents. But there’s more than one way to mechanically reinforce our frail bodies.