Watching a person walk for the first time in twenty years is an image that sticks with you. That’s exactly what Tim Swift was fortunate enough to witness as part of the three-person original team behind the Ekso wearable bionic suit, a set of mechanical robot legs designed to help people with paralysis take their first assisted steps. Swift was the Senior Controls Engineer and, later, Research Manager at Ekso Bionics; building wearable robotics technology that previously existed only as a sci-fi fever dream. “It’s amazing tech,” he told Digital Trends. “I love it like a child.”
As astonishing as the sight was, however, it wasn’t the one that stuck with him the most. The image most indelibly burned into his memory was the one which frequently followed the robot rehab sessions; the one that we might think of as the comedown. “Those moments were great and life-affirming, but at the end of the hour [the person would] transfer out of the device and back into their wheelchair, and wheel out the door like it didn’t happen,” Swift said.
In 2013, Swift parted ways with Ekso Bionics and set about on his next venture: A company that attempts to solve some of the biggest challenges in the wearable robotics space. Namely, how do you make a robot exosuit people can more fully integrate into their lives today?
“To make good on the dream [of wearable robotics], we have to make devices that are fundamentally low-cost and lighter weight, so that people can integrate them into their real lives,” he said. “The goal isn’t to make $100,000 machines that weigh 60 pounds and have a peak speed of half a mile an hour. That’s not the dream. The dream is to be able to change the way someone lives their life.”
For the past six years, this is what Swift, founder of the San Francisco-based Roam Robotics, has been working toward. Its approach isn’t necessarily better than other bionic suit companies, but rather different; in the same way that a personal computer for the home was different from a mini or microcomputer in an office back in the 1970s and 80s. Sure, it may not have quite the same capabilities, but being able to build an affordable lightweight alternative that does a lot of the same things is a selling point in itself. At least, that’s the $2,500 idea.
Roam Robotics’ approach to wearable exoskeletons is a whole lot less “Aliens Power Loader” in design than many existing alternatives. One of Swift’s big lessons was that packing on as much electromechanical or hydraulics tech to a wearable exosuit makes them heavy and expensive. Roam’s approach ditches the metal and motors of other exosuits for lighter-weight, more invisible devices built around materials like plastic and fabrics. The resulting exosuits look more like a pair of leg braces, each weighing a couple of pounds, attached to a backpack system for control.
So far, the company has focused on three verticals: Developing exosuits for the tactical military market, the medical market, and the outdoor market, the latter via its first official product, a special skiing exosuit called Elevate. While that might sound like a company that’s spreading its resources too thinly, Swift said that all three markets have a lot in common: they’re all areas in which people face physical limitations.
“Our mission is really clear,” Swift said. “It’s to move the boundaries of human performance, whether you’re a Navy SEAL, an everyday athlete, or an aging adult trying to remain independent in your home. For each of those individuals, the boundaries are very different but make no mistake, a boundary exists. What we seek to do is to take that boundary and move it 10, 20, 30%. We’re not turning everyone into Superman. But what we are doing is moving the edge of what their body is able to do.”
The company’s first product is its Elevate skiing product. Elevate works by offloading weight from the quads and knees of skiers to enable them to ski for longer without discomfort. Unobtrusive when it’s not needed, the lightweight braces, connected to each corresponding boot, provide augmented support when a user is executing turns, stops, or any other maneuver which could benefit from a helping hand (or, err, robotic leg.)
I first wrote about Elevate last year when it was still in development. Now it’s ready for prime time. Starting December 15, Elevate is available for rental from select ski resorts in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah, priced at $109 per day.
Skiing might sound a somewhat niche application for a wearable exosuit, but Swift said that it is the perfect demo for the kind of dynamic movements Roam’s unique technology can help improve. If anything is going to banish lingering images of clunky robot steps, hammered into our heads by years of robots in science-fiction, it’s a wearable device that enables people to fluidly ski down snowy slopes. By combining onboard sensors with smart software, Elevate anticipates users’ turns and automatically adjusts the knee and quad support to aid natural motion. Oh, and don’t let Swift hear you say that skiing is niche, either.
” … if people [using our exosuits] aren’t describing some part of it as magic, we’re not doing our jobs right.”
“The ski market alone is [composed of around] 10 million avid skiers in the U.S. alone,” he said. “That’s people who ski at least four times per season. That’s a lot of people. If you go internationally, you’re looking almost 50 million skiers.” He also noted that a lot of skiers skew older in terms of their demographic, meaning that they are more likely to be people whose bodies are starting to show signs of struggles against Father Time.
This, in turn, could help grow adoption in the medical market, where Roam Robotics hopes that its technology could be used by people experiencing knee difficulties that limit mobility. “Roughly 50% of the U.S. population has knee pain or joint pain that limits them from engaging in some daily activity,” Swift said. “That ranges significantly, but boiling it down further, 18 million people in the U.S. in 2010 were diagnosed osteoarthritis patients. Those are people who have joint pain to a level where it’s severely inhibiting their daily lives.”
Roam is currently 90% of the way to completing its medical assistive tech, and is seeking out people in the San Francisco area who want to put it through its paces. The company is also at approximately the same stage with its tactical military exoskeleton, which will enable soldiers to carry out physical activities for longer. This tactical exoskeleton works on the same principle as Elevate, although it’s described as “beefier” in design. To develop this tech, Roam has been awarded $11 million by the U.S. government, with up to another $12 million pending, based on the success of testing early in 2020.
Roam Robotics’ more stripped-down approach to exosuits isn’t an attempt to bring Iron Man into the real world. At least, not in terms of making a wearable robot that looks, frankly, like what we imagined a wearable robot would look like. But the growing team working on it are convinced that they’ve cracked the problem of how best to make assistive exosuits a part of people’s daily lives.
Swift talks about what he calls the “suck test” for exoskeletons. That was an early metric the team employed whereby they wanted an exosuit people could put on, use, and take off again without having to use the word “sucks” to describe any single part of it. In other words, to quote Steve Jobs, they wanted to build something that just works.
“That was a very hard bar,” Swift said. “Until I worked here, I’ve never heard of a device that came close to checking that box. Now we’ve started to move to the ‘magic test.’ That means that if people [using our exosuits] aren’t describing some part of it as magic, we’re not doing our jobs right.”
If Roam Robotics is able to make powered robot exosuits, a concept that people have been dreaming about for decades, a mainstream commodity, I think it’s safe to say they’ll have achieved that “magic” part.
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