Wearable Tech World Feature Article
May 24, 2013

It's Not Steve Austin Yet, But the Global Bionics Marketplace is Ready for Its Debut

If you’re a fan of Iron Man, you might be looking forward to the day you can climb into your robotic suit and save the world (or terrorize the world, if you’re a fan of Obadiah Stane). While we’re not there yet – not nearly there yet – medical and military science has, as of late, been making brisk progress on automated artificial exoskeletons.

Some “robotic” exoskeletons have helped people with paralysis to walk upright again. Ekso Bionics offers a bionic “suit” exoskeleton designed to allow people with lower extremity paralysis to stand up and walk over ground with a weight bearing, four-point reciprocal gait, says the company. The wearer uses his or her forward lateral weight shift to initiate a step. When the Esko exoskeleton senses that the wearer is in the correct position, small motors powered by a battery drive the legs and replace neuromuscular function.

For others, bionic suits are about military applications. Such suits have been designed (there is already one in the works by the U.S. military’s DARPA arm) to be worn under clothing and enhance users' existing strengths (paging Tony Stark!) and Lockheed Martin has one under development as well.

Given the progress researchers are making in a number of sciences such suits will need to tap – robotics, micro-power supplies, materials science and wireless communications and networking – it’s only a matter of time until bionic devices as well as entire suits are available for medical, security and even consumer use. While development for many prototypes is underway in the U.S., Japanese researchers are also keen on advancing bionics. In Japan, there are projects underway that could help the elderly improve their stability and locomotion.

"In the next five years we're going to see more and more exoskeletons out there in practice," Thomas Sugar, associate professor at the Department of Engineering, Arizona State University, told CNN recently. Sugar noted that one of the biggest roadblocks to exoskeleton suits is battery technology: finding a battery powerful enough to provide juice for such a suit yet small enough to be carried on the wearer’s person is a challenge.

Bionics, of course, isn’t only about helping people to walk or gain strength (as any fans of “The Six Million Dollar Man” know). Argus’ Bionic II eye implant was recently approved by the U.S. FDA to help patients with certain types of blindness see again. The implant has been approved in Europe for several years now.

When it comes to implanted bionics, one recent study found that the medical bionic implant market – worth around $12.67 billion in 2012 – is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.1 percent to reach $17.82 billion in 2017. Considering that this is just the earliest drips of the flood, the dollar value of the market going forward a decade or so is fairly staggering.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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