ROBOTICS
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The Next Big Thing

'Bionic men' may proliferate in 2016 if US firm scores funding from Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2015, 10:41am

A bionics company in the United States that is developing exoskeletons to help paraplegics walk, as well as prevent injuries in the workplace, is looking to Asia for manufacturing and funding to bring its products to market within a year.

US Bionics, founded by Homayoon Kazerooni to commercialise inventions resulting from his team’s research at the University of California at Berkley, is developing low-cost exoskeletons for people with mobility problems.

“I want to make sure these devices are becoming available internationally, so we’ve been working for five years to create accessible, modular exoskeletons for people at lower cost,” Kazerooni said on the sidelines of this week's APAC Innovation Summit 2015 Series – Robotics. The conference is being hosted by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park.

“We want to make sure this is manufactured in Asia so it can be more accessible in terms of cost.”

Kazerooni, a professor of mechanical engineering, expressed frustration at seeing too many advances in the robotics field get stuck in the lab and never come to fruition. 

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He is also keen to dispel misconceptions about the bionics industry.

“When I talk to young people in America, they think of [Ironman], but it’s not glamourous, it’s just helping people walk, that’s what bionics is about,” he said.

The roboticist encourages his team of 15 to use low-cost materials to build the modular exoskeletons. He said he is not a fan of adapting robotics from industrial to personal use, but prefers a different approach.

US Bionics aims to produce its medical Phoenix exoskeletons for no more than the price of a motorised wheelchair, or less than US$20,000, Kazerooni said.

“It is lightweight and easy to use. The key is [people] can use it at their homes. It’s a home device, not a rehab device. It’s the very first exoskeleton for home use,” he said.

It can be operated using buttons fitted onto crutches that communicate with sensors on different parts of the exoskeleton in order to make it walk. One battery charge allows for four hours of continuous walking, the company said. 

Developing technologies for an ageing population is one of the focuses of Hong Kong’s science park. Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, the park’s chairperson, said the city can be a testing bed for these technologies. 

“We believe Hong Kong is really an ideal living laboratory for the development and testing of assistance technology for wider application in the [Chinese] mainland in the future,” she said.

Kazerooni said he hopes the device will give people with mobility problems more confidence to join social activities in places that may not be wheelchair friendly. 

The exoskeletons can be strapped onto the body by the wearer. They are modular, so users can apply the whole kit or just select certain body parts.

A trunk support exoskeleton developed by Kazerooni’s team to support labourers lifting heavy objects weighing up to seven pounds and reduces forces on the back, the company said. Back injuries are the most common workplace injury in the US.