Beyond human: 5 organisations making bionic breakthroughs

Exoskeletons, rehabilitation robotics, connected prosthetics and more
Beyond human: Bionic breakthroughs

We're only human. We age, we get injured, some of us suffer from chronic conditions and many of us get hurt in accidents. Wouldn't it be great if we didn't? That's where bionics might just take us. Technology that helps severely injured soldiers learn to walk and stroke victims get their co-ordination back can turn ordinary Joes and Janes into Iron Man and Woman, turn the timid into Terminators and most importantly, deliver life-changing benefits to people around the world.

Here are five organisations bringing (wo)man and machine together in perfect harmony.

Touch Bionics (Livingston, Scotland)

Touch Bionics is a spin-off from the Scottish National Health Service and it became a stand-alone business in 2003. Its 2014 i-limb was hailed as the world's most advanced prosthetic hand, and this prosthetic is a pop star: Touch Bionics supplied a prosthetic hand for the Scream & Shout video by and Britney Spears, and it's also been seen on fashion catwalks and in advertising campaigns welcoming visitors to Scotland.

Wearable tech saves the day: Exosuits, robotic hands and NASA glasses

Last month an even better version of the i-limb was released. The i-limb quantum is faster, stronger, smaller and can change grip style with simple gestures. It's also programmable via an iPhone app for doctors and users, and can use 'chip grips', which are little Bluetooth sensors you can place on parts of a home or office to automatically adjust the i-limb's grip - for example to better grip a tap.

The technology may be cutting edge, but Touch Bionics has a very long history; its technology started its development back in 1963 at the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh. Today, the city boasts the Edinburgh Robotics Centre, a joint venture between two of the city's universities to drive robotic and bionic research and development.

ReWalk Robotics (Maryland, USA)

Now in its sixth generation, the ReWalk Personal System is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that can enable people with spinal cord injuries and conditions such as Spina Bifida to stand, walk, turn and even climb stairs. It's a version of the ReWalk Rehabilitation exoskeleton, which is designed for clinical use and which helped paralysed British woman Claire Lomas become the first person to finish a marathon using a bionic suit in 2012.

Read this: This robotic wearable teaches you how to draw with haptics

The system is the brainchild of Israeli entrepreneur Dr Amit Goffer, who became quadriplegic after a vehicle accident in 1998, and the company has been described by some investors as "the next Tesla". If it can drive down its costs and persuade insurance companies to help subsidise the units, which currently come in at over $70,000 each, ReWalk could change the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Open Bionics (Bristol, England)

Could 3D printing help drive down the significant costs of prosthetic limbs? Open Bionics think so, and it wants to "arm the masses" with affordable, life-changing prosthetics. The numbers are staggering: there are more than 114 million hand amputees worldwide, many of whom have simple prosthetics such as hooks or no prosthetics at all.

Must read: NHS to introduce wearables for patients

The Bristol-based firm thinks the solution is to use medical-grade materials to manufacture prosthetic hands costing less than £650, which is an extraordinarily low price for such a complicated device. By comparison, i-limb-type devices can cost tens of thousands of pounds. Joel Gibbard's design uses off-the-shelf DC motors connected to tell tendons with 3D-printed plastic bones and a rubber coating, all controlled via stick-on electrodes. The first commercial models are planned for 2016.

Ekso Bionics (California, USA)

Ekso Bionics' exoskeleton was originally designed to help injured soldiers and people with paralysis or limb weaknesses to walk and lift things naturally, but it's branching out. The Ekso Work Suit hopes to bring exoskeletons to a construction site near you. Unlike other exoskeletons - and unlike Ekso's own rehabilitation suits - the Work Suit doesn't have any electronics, or motors, or batteries; it uses gravity and clever design similar to the famous Steadicam camera mount to make heavy power tools feel weightless. It isn't cheap - estimates suggest it'll be $12,000 or more when it goes on sale in 2016 - but turning an ordinary worker into a superhero is priceless.

In depth: We speak to Ekso Bionics

Construction isn't the only industry Ekso is involved in. It also built the HULC, a US Defense Department-funded exoskeleton for soldiers, and it's licensed some of its technology to Lockheed Martin for commercial and military applications.

The big question around the Work Suit is whether firms will actually use it. Ekso thinks they will, because construction is expanding while the workforce is getting older, and there are applications in the emergency services too.

US Army Research Lab (Delaware, USA)

The news that the military is interested in bionic tech is hardly surprising - we've already seen the US Hulc exoskeleton for soldiers, and the Chinese 202 Institute of China Ordnance Industry Group has been showing similar exoskeletons that could enable soldiers to carry extremely large, heavy weapons while wearing exceptionally strong armour. But bionics aren't just about turning soldiers into ambulatory armoured vehicles. They can make them more effective too.

MAXFAS (Mobile Arm eXoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization), which is currently a proof-of-concept prototype, takes technology designed for rehabilitating stroke victims and uses it to improve soldiers' shooting. Soldiers often have to shoot in very tiring and stressful situations, which can throw off even the best marksman's aim, and MAXFAS prevents that from happening. It works much like optical image stabilisation in a camera: it detects tremors and stabilises the wearer's arm. It's currently too bulky for battlefield use, but of course the Army is working on that.

What do you think?

Connect with Facebook, Twitter, or just enter your email to sign in and comment.