It is not surprising that robotics devices are finding their way into the field of physical therapy. Researchers are currently working to create more functional prosthetic
limbs, exoskeletons to allow patients with paralysis to
become mobile again, and tools used for therapeutic
purposes. While the disabled were once limited to clunky
and uncomfortable devices, now these patients are being
given options that help to make use of what functionality
their bodies still have.
More and more, therapists are turning to the
burgeoning field of rehabilitation robotics to aid in the
treatment of victims of short term injuries — like me — in
addition to individuals with permanent disabilities. Robotic
devices have the potential to revolutionize the way patients
are treated and change the lives of disabled people across
Rehabilitation robotics actually began with research into
exoskeleton devices back in the 1960s. An exoskeleton is
essentially a wearable robot, with a system of motors or
hydraulics designed to assist the wearer by increasing
strength and endurance. Of course, this idea has been
conceptualized in fiction since the debut of Stan Lee’s Iron
Man comics in 1963, but exoskeletons have been in
development in the real world for decades. In the United
States, the goal was to use these exoskeletons as a way to
enhance able-bodied soldier’s combat abilities.
The Hardiman — which stands for Human
Augmentation Research and Development Investigation —
was developed by General Electric in 1965. The goal was
for Hardiman to allow the user to lift 1,500 lb, but the
exoskeleton was severely limited by the technology of the
time. So instead, researchers went about making just the
arm of the Hardiman which they hoped would be able to
lift 750 lb.
Although it could successfully lift this amount of
weight, the arm weighed three quarters of a ton — double
the amount it could lift — making the device highly
impractical in a real world application.
In the 1980s, workers at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory developed a suit designed to enhance strength
that responded to the wearer’s brain activity through
sensors in a helmet. Again, the limited technology of the
time presented problems for the machine’s success. The
computers were too slow to allow the device to function in
a smooth and succinct way. It was also too bulky to be
Although these early attempts at developing an
exoskeleton were not entirely successful, they provided a
foundation for future projects which were quick to emerge
as technology began to improve. So far, exoskeletons have
not yet reached wide use, but they have the potential to
revolutionize life for people with limited use of their limbs.
One manifestation of this is the Ekso bionic suit. The
Ekso was developed to allow formerly wheelchair bound
paraplegics to walk. The device contains a computer that
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The Hardiman exoskeleton — while ambitious — was
severely limited by technology of the time.
Photo courtesy of General Electric.
The Ekso exoskeleton allows paraplegics to walk again,
some of whom have been confined to a wheelchair
for decades. Photo courtesy of Ekso Bionics.