“Get away from her you bitch!!” –Lt. Ellen Ripley
That famous line was delivered by actress Sigourney Weaver while she donned a massive metal exoskeleton in James Cameron’s 1986 science fiction flick Aliens.
The suit, essentially a human-powered robotic forklift, was designed by special effects engineer John Richardson. His final product bore a strong resemblance to a General Electric prototype from the late 1960’s called the Hardiman Exoskeleton, which was designed to augment human strength with massive hydromechanical arms.
The GE prototype allowed an average human to singlehandedly lift 750 pounds. While that sounds amazing, it’s only part of the story. The problem was that the unit itself weighed 1500 pounds and was effectively stationary. It wasn’t so much an exoskeleton as it was a standard industrial robot.
Today, both the Hardiman Exoskeleton and the Alien-slaying power loader it inspired look like retro engineering. With more than 40 years of history behind them, commercial exoskeletons have shrunk down to under 50 pounds and are now capable of helping disabled individuals stand and walk.
What’s more, they are now racing to widespread adoption.
Who’s Running in This Race?
Parker Hannifin (NYSE: PH)
Developed at Vanderbilt University, the Indego Exo has been called a Segway with legs. Its motorized joints move forward or backward depending upon the orientation of the user, similar to how a Segway balances its user with gyroscopes and accelerometers.
Beginning in 2012, Parker Hannifin licensed the Indego Exo design to speed up commercial adoption. The advantages of the Indego are that it can work with any off-the-shelf Ankle-Foot Orthosis (AFO), and can be worn while the user is still in a wheelchair.
The biggest advantage of this model is that it weighs just 27 pounds, and is by far the lightest-weight of the current crop of exoskeletons. As a testament to how impressive this tiny device is, it won the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Innovator Award in 2013. What’s more, its estimated cost is a mere $15,000.
Parker Hannifin had a decent First Quarter 2014, with a net income $244.3 million, with earnings of $1.61 per share. This was up from last year’s $239.9 million net/$1.57 eps, but the company’s North American market segment declined by 2.6 percent year over year. Fortunately, the weak performance in North America market was balanced by strong operational performance and a slight 1.8 percent increase in international business.
ARGO Medical Technologies (Private, Israel)
ARGO and mobility solutions vendor Cyclone Technologies (OTC: CYPW) released the ReWalk exoskeleton to consumers in Europe last year.
A British woman named Claire Lomas was the first private user of ReWalk, and with it, she walked the 32nd annual London Marathon. She had been paralyzed since 2007 with spinal cord injuries from a horse riding accident, but with the motorized frame, she could walk with relative ease.
At 50 pounds, the ReWalk is nearly twice as heavy as the Indego Exo and carries a retail price of $71,000, which puts it within mid-market luxury car pricing.
Still, ReWalk was an earlier entrant into the market, and is available in personal models, like the one used by Lomas, and models for use within rehabilitation centers. In the U.S., only the rehabilitation model is approved for use by the FDA. This is an issue we’ll get to shortly.
Ekso Bionics (Private, formerly Berkeley Bionics)
Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, Ekso made a huge breakthrough with an exoskeleton that helped soldiers effortlessly carry over 100 pounds of gear. The Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC as it was known, was licensed to Lockheed Martin in 2008.
The Ekso Bionic Suit is a gait-training exoskeleton similar to the ReWalk, and it is in use in 30 physical therapy and rehabilitation centers across the globe. The lab is currently working on a pair of “eLegs” closer in design to the Indego with a target price of under $100,000 per pair.
As a designer for major military contractor Lockheed Martin, Ekso Bionics is in a strong position in this nascent market.
Union Medtech, Plc (ISDX: UMTP)
In mid-October, British company Union Medtech announced it would acquire New Zealand’s Rex Bionics (RBL) before the company completed work on its second generation exoskeleton.
Rex Bionics came about this in the opposite direction from the previously mentioned companies.
Its first product, the Rex 1, was a personal exoskeleton designed specifically for quadriplegic pentathlete Dave MacCalman, and its unreleased second generation was designed for use within rehab centers.
Union Medtech said it planned to fund the launch and commercialization of REX 2 while continuing the sales and marketing of the first generation.
Two markets or One?
All of these companies are working on solutions for two different applications: personal mobility and rehabilitative work.
But in the United States, the personal market doesn’t yet exist. For it to become a reality, the FDA and insurance industry have to sanction these products for use. This has not happened yet, and certain products have only been approved for use within the walks of a physical therapist’s.
So even though these companies are racing to release their next generations of exoskeletons, they are going to immediately be limited to use within medical clinics. We shouldn’t expect to see anyone running the New York City marathon on robotic legs any time soon.
Still, it’s exciting to know these products exist before the market does – if there’s ever a bureaucratic breakthrough, all these companies will simultaneously rush onto the playing-field.