A pair of researchers affiliated with the University of Tsukuba and Cyberdyne are suggesting exoskeletal technology has evolved to complement science fiction. In their paper published in the journal Science Robotics, Yoshiyuki Sankai and Takeru Sakurai offer a Focus piece outlining the current state of exoskeletal research.
Exoskeletons, like those used by characters in movies like Pacific Rim, have become popular in modern science fiction—they are typically used to extend the abilities of able-bodied people. But, Sankai and Sakurai argue, real-world implementations have actually progressed beyond what most people realize. There is one major difference, however. In real life, exoskeletal technology is much more focused on assisting those with spinal or brain injuries—the goal is to restore some or all of the mobility users have lost.
The researchers highlight what they call hybrid voluntary and autonomous control assistive limbs, or more easily, Medical HAL. Such technology, they contend, actually surpasses some of the features seen in the movies. Real-world exoskeletons, for example, are generally outfitted with sensors that pick up neurological signals—they are controlled by the brain, rather than the hands or feet. Such exoskeletons, they further note, are part of a new wave of technology called cybernics, which fuses robotic systems and human functional abilities. One important difference, they note, between Medical HAL and sci-fi exoskeletons is size. In real life, researchers try hard to minimize size to make exoskeletons less noticeable and intrusive. They also add features such as gravity mitigation techniques, because people with spinal or brain injuries generally have limited muscle mass. Also, they note, one very important feature of Medical HAL is the ability to personalize a given exoskeleton to the person who will be using it.
Sankai and Sakurai note also that Medical HAL offers additional assistance to users by providing a new form of physical therapy. One medical trial, they note, found that 75 percent of patients tested showed improvements in walking ability after using an exoskeleton. Another trial found that patients with a progressive muscular disease saw an increase in the number of steps they were able to take.