Underarmor meets powered armor
Although the word “exosuit” drums up visions of Halo or Starship Troopers, there are plenty of non-military applications for this technology. Moving beyond the soldier, the new startup SuperFlex, spun off of SRI International, has raised a Series A funding round worth $9.6 million and come out of stealth mode, with a product launch in 2018.
Based in Menlo Park, California, SuperFlex will branch out from SRI’s past robotics work, hiring “textiles, industrial design, robotics, biomechanics, and data science” experts to developer-powered clothing that can be worn like underarmor. It officially launched in April.
SRI outlines four main uses for this apparel: Therapeutic, elder care, industrial, and sports. There’s a fifth category for the industry at large, military, which SRI has done work before on: specifically, the “warrior web” exosuit the US military is interested in for its soldiers.
SRI itself is currently “focusing on using the technologies to assist individuals with musculoskeletal diseases.”
Investors include Global Brain (leading the pack), Horizons Ventures, Root Ventures, and Sinovation Ventures. SRI Ventures is also involved, of course.
Rather than a big metal frame or heavy suit of armor, like you’d expect to see on a SyFy or Bioware production, CEO and Founder Rich Mahoney told VentureBeat, “It is like an undergarment, a unitard form factor, that you wear under your clothes. It has integrated muscles, or electric muscles, that assist your movement.”
“We think of this as the first supersuit,” he added. It still has a long way to go, though, as the company is still doing conceptual work for key components, like the battery technology. It can’t be gas-powered, of course, and needs at least a regular day of wear and tear without recharging.
For the elderly, the uses are readily apparent in that they can augment mobility in the event of injury, chronic pain, or just infirmity in general. It would give such people greater independence in their residences, making daily tasks doable. Ideally, the technology will be capable enough that fewer people would need to go into assisted living, because they are more able to take care of themselves, or if they do go into a hospice or nursing home, it would reduce the burden on staff. As Tech Crunch points out, it’s no coincidence that the lead investor, Global Brain, is based in Japan, where elder care is a growth industry, and treatment options for the country’s large number of graying citizens are widely debated.
This is the main focus for SuperFlex right now, elder care, but there are other possibilities down the line.
Sports would be a controversial arena, no pun intended. The technology will be used for treating injuries, making rehabilitation go faster. But if it comes to a point where players can wear these clothes while playing, that would put them less in the realm of gym equipment than performance enhancers. And, until costs are lowered enough, the wealthier and bigger clubs will have more access to the clothing, while have-not teams who lack the money will not be able to take full advantage of it. This is very much the case already, so it is not an unpredictable (or unresolvable) problem. It could also be used in more rugged settings, like mountain climbing or hiking, if it’s sturdy enough with good life battery.
Beyond sports, the therapeutic applications are very wide-ranging. A device’s power requirements and cumbersome size would not be as big an issue given the location, and therefore, suitable for a wide-range of intensive physical therapy. What could be perfected in the near-future would be partial systems to help people regain range of motion for their limbs, or support a damaged spine. And, obviously, they’d be great for all of the exercises patients have to do to rebuild their muscle mass after a serious injury.
The industrial aspect of the technology also lies heavily in the therapeutic field. Strength and support technology means fewer worn-out workers, leading to a higher quality of life, greater productivity, and a reduction in injuries. Technology that braces backs and strengthens limbs would mean fewer injuries from lifting. And those injuries cost the economy billions every year in compensation and healthcare fees: “One quarter of all compensation indemnity claims involve back injuries,” according to the University of Minnesota, and lower back pain “is responsible for more lost work days than any other musculoskeletal disorder.”
In fact, healthcare employees themselves have very high rates of back injuries, so pervasive is the stress on the body. So conceivably, you’d have a hospital that is buying these devices not just for patients, but for doctors, nurses, and custodians, too.
One risk, explored in science fiction, is that the added strength could harm wearers if the machinery malfunctions or operators overexert themselves. The low-power models SRI and SuperFlex are working on wouldn’t carry great a risk of that, though, so it remains the stuff of writers and game designers.
The last field for this technology, military, combines all of the above applications, though obviously in a very different setting. The medical aspects for wounded soldiers are readily apparent, as are the strength enhancements for regular work around a base. Where it gets more “science fiction” is in adapting the technology to make troopers run faster, shoot straighter, and carry bigger loads without risk of fatigue.
Such technology is being tested by militaries around the world, with China and the US foremost among them. However, there is a long way to go because the systems have to be able to handle rough terrain, bad weather, and weapons fire – all without breaking down or needing to be recharged so often they become a logistical liability.
Adapting the technology for commercial use, then, will make it easier to test out concepts in less demanding settings, and drive research that favors convenience and comfort. According to Mahoney, “We’ll combine comfort and style with power assist for clothes that look good and help people feel good.”