An Improved Exoskeleton Launching Next Year

Recently I learned that a new exoskeleton  is speeding to the market and may be launched as soon as next year. The new exoskeleton has been designed by a team from Vanderbilt University Center for Intelligent Mechatronics under the leadership of  Prof. Michael Goldfarb. I contacted him and asked for an interview to update us on the progress about this new exoskeleton. Michael kindly agreed.

* Gene: How does the Vanderbilt Exoskeleton differ from the other four leading exoskeletons on the market (ReWalk, Ekso, HAL and Rex)?
* Michael: I’m not aware that HAL has yet been used to enable walking in a person with complete paraplegia, so I generally don’t consider it in a comparison. If you know otherwise, let me know. Regarding the VU exoskeleton in relation to the others, the VU exo is significantly lighter (12 kg or 27 lb); does not have components worn over the shoulders or under the feet; snaps apart into three pieces for transport, storage, donning, and doffing; and does not require an instrumented stability aid (like the Ekso) or a wrist pad controller (like ReWalk) to use. One additional substantial difference is that the VU exo is designed to be used with supplemental FES, for users that want the additionally physiological benefits of doing so. We have demonstrated effective cooperative use of the exo and FES with the quads and hamstrings. We have two papers that will be presented at the upcoming EMBS conference next month that describe results with FES. 

* Gene: Can you please tell us a few words about functional electrical stimulation (FES), how it works and what the benefits are for wheelchair users, quads as well as paras? What is the benefit of having electrical stimulation in an exoskeleton?
* Michael: FES is a means of artificially eliciting muscle contraction, in our case from surface skin electrodes, and in our case, used in conjunction with and controlled by the exoskeleton. As a result, the user is moving under the combination of exoskeleton motor power, and his or her own muscle power. Supplementing the exoskeleton with FES provides a number of physiological benefits to the user, including improved circulation, decreased decubitus ulcers, improved cardiovascular and lymphatic health, increased bone density, and reduced muscle spasticity, to name a few. Our system need not be used with FES, but can be used with it for those users who want the associated physiological benefits.

* How easy is it to put on the Vanderbilt exoskeleton? How long does it take?
* Michael: We designed it to be snapped on in three pieces while seated (i.e., you need not transfer into it, although you can if that’s the preference). This works fairly well in the current version, but we are currently revising the quick-connect design to make it easier to snap together. As it currently is, it takes approximately three minutes to don, and about 30 seconds to doff.

* What are the biggest challenges that you face?
* Michael: I’m not sure how you intend this question, but I believe establishing a viable business model for our exoskeleton (and all other emerging ones) is amongst the biggest of challenges. We need to demonstrate a clear benefit/cost ratio, in particular, by demonstrating clear therapeutic benefit (that fact the user’s really like it is likely not sufficient for medical reimbursement), and we need to reduce the cost of these exos.

* Gene: For what type of user will the Vanderbilt Exoskeleton be appropriate?
* Michael: Any para with sufficient upper extremity coordination to balance with a stability aid. Possibly some quads with sufficient arm and grip strength to use a stability aid.

* Gene: What are your plans for marketing the Vanderbilt exoskeleton? When do you expect to be able to bring the exoskeleton to the market?
* Michael: We have licensed this technology to a commercial partner that intends to bring the technology to market. That commercial partner will submit to the FDA. The commercial partner plans to make the exoskeleton available for purchase next fall (2013).

* Gene: Do you expect to market the Vanderbilt as the other exoskeleton companies have done before you, that is first for institutional use? Or will the Vanderbilt exoskeleton be for personal use from the start?
* Michael: The exoskeleton was designed for personal use, but the commercial partner will undoubtedly start with institutional markets, then progress to personal (consumer) markets.

* Gene:  Do you have an idea of the target price range of the Vanderbilt exoskeleton?
* Michael: This is to be determined by our commercial partner. My hope is that they will bring it to market at a much lower cost than the other systems you mentioned. Of all these systems, ours is the only one for which the development was funded by the US government (NIH), and our commercial partner need not recover these development costs, and therefore may be better positioned relative to the others to bring it to market at a lower cost. 

An improved exoskeleton at a lower cost would certainly be a huge step. If anyone knows of other exoskeletons for wheelchair users which will soon be coming to market, please contact me at RehaDesign "AT" Gmail "Dot" com. Read more about exoskeleton suits for wheelchair users