Powered exoskeletons may be the ultimate fitness machines

Are exoskeletons finally going mainstream?

A Hong Kong-based robotics company is selling a powered exoskeleton to help people achieve their fitness goals — potentially signalling the tech’s long-awaited arrival in the consumer market.

The challenge: A powered exoskeleton is a wearable robot that augments your body. It could restore a lost function, letting a person with paralysis walk or run, for example, or enhance an existing ability — the U.S. military is researching exoskeletons that would give soldiers extra strength and endurance.

​​”There is no doubt in my mind that these devices will eventually be sold at hardware stores.”

Homayoon Kazerooni

These exoskeletons typically cost thousands of dollars, and some have yearly rental fees in the six-figure range. That high cost has largely limited their application to healthcare, the military, and the industrial workforce, but experts see exoskeletons eventually going mainstream.

​​”There is no doubt in my mind that these devices will eventually be sold at hardware stores,” Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of exoskeleton developer SuitX, told BBC News. “As the prices come down you’ll be able to simply buy them at Home Depot.”

The Sportsmate 5: We’re now starting to see that transition take place.

Hong Kong-based Enhanced Robotics has launched a KickStarter campaign to fund what it’s calling “the world’s first exoskeleton for consumers.” This device, the Sportsmate 5, weighs 5.5 pounds, is worn around the waist and thighs, and has two modes: outdoor and fitness. 

The device can tell if a person is walking, jogging, or climbing a hill, and adjust its assistance or resistance.

Outdoor mode has two settings: assistance or resistance. In the assistance setting, motors near the hips help lift the legs — that can make it easier to climb stairs or hike uphill. The resistance mode makes it easier to walk down hills or stairs by minimizing shaking and stabilizing the body.

Fitness mode is all about making it harder to move the legs, period. It also has two settings: ​​extension and flexion. These add resistance to different types of movements — extension makes squats more difficult, for example, while flexion does the same for leg lifts.

The tech: Sensors in the Sportsmate 5 detect the user’s movements and send data to an AI-based algorithm that controls the motors. According to Enhanced Robotics, the device can tell whether a person is walking, jogging, climbing a hill, etc. and adjust its assistance or resistance.

The battery life of the powered exoskeleton is about three hours, but depending on the user’s movement, some of the energy they expend can actually be harvested to recharge the battery, helping the device last longer.

Enhanced Robotics quickly met its $9,989 goal for the Kickstarter campaign — at the time of writing, more than $95,000 had been pledged. The retail cost of the powered exoskeleton is $1,458, but backers are paying as little as $899, with the first deliveries set for May 2022.

The big picture: Adding a bit of extra resistance to a workout isn’t anything people haven’t been able to do before with weights and resistance bands. However, the powered exoskeleton makes it easier to add resistance while keeping your hands free, which some people might find appealing.

Really, it’s not what Enhanced Robotics’s device does that makes it exciting so much as the fact that it is a powered exoskeleton that a decent number of people could actually afford to buy — meaning we might be seeing more of the devices in this price range in the near future.

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