Human Augmentation, Exoskeleton Technology & 'Open' Health

Human augmentation is generally used to refer to technologies that enhance human productivity or capability. It spans a wide gamut of technologies, ranging from implants, prosthetic limbs, enhanced sensory devices, powered exoskeletons, and more. 

Human augmentation technologies have the potential to enhance our innate human abilities in many ways.  For example, it could be used to replace missing limbs or correct physical disabilities. In fact, some of the latest prosthetic devices have now reached the stage where they offer equivalent or slightly improved functionality over human limbs.

Military organizations are now experimenting with a wide range of 1st generation human augmentation technologies, including exoskeletons that allow personnel to carry increased loads and perform at a higher level. These devices have the potential to be adapted for use in healthcare and many other industries.

Elderly people could benefit from powered human augmentation technology, such as powered exoskeletons, that can be used to assist wearers with simple walking and lifting activities, improving the health and quality of life for aging populations.

New implantable brain-machine interfaces have been developed and are being tested that are demonstrating that directly bridging the gap between brain and prosthetics devices are becoming a reality – allowing prosthetic devices to be directly integrated with the user’s body.

Neuro-enhancement technology under development could also provide superior memory recall or speed of thought for humans.  Think of the possibilities for the those suffering from some form of dementia.

Human augmentation technology will probably not begin to be widely available for at least 10-15 years. However, as the field continues to advance, some people may eventually choose to enhance their bodies, much as they do with cosmetic surgery today. The high cost of human augmentation technology may lead to the emergence of a two-tiered society of enhanced and non-enhanced persons.

Think about the implications!

Exoskeleton Technology

A powered exoskeleton consists primarily of an outer framework worn by a person coupled with a powered system of motors or hydraulics that delivers part of the energy needed for limb movement. The main function of a powered exoskeleton is to assist the wearer by boosting their strength and endurance.

To date, powered exoskeletons have primarily been designed and developed for use by the military.  Similar exoskeletons are now being designed for use by firefighters and other rescue workers in dangerous environments. 

The medical field is another prime area for exoskeleton technology development and use.  For example, it could be used to assist nurses in moving heavy patients. It could also be used by patients with major physical disabilities, missing limbs, and many who are currently wheelchair-bound.

A variation of the exoskeleton concept is a mecha – robots or machines controlled by people from the inside. They are typically much larger than a normal human body and are controlled by a human operator occupying a control seat inside a larger robotic system.  Remember the movie Avatar?

Wearable machines that enhance human muscle power are poised to be rolled out for use on the factory floor. These large robots or exoskeleton systems could help factory workers lift and use heavy tools, enable soldiers to carry heavy loads over long distances, and enable spinal injury patients to walk.

Many problems remain to be solved, like the creation of a compact power supply powerful enough to allow an exoskeleton to operate for extended periods without being plugged into external power.  However, these problems are being solved as work continues on a growing number of next generation exoskeleton systems.

Exoskeletons for the Military

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated development of exoskeletons in 2001 under the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation Program. Check out some of the following examples:

  • XOS Exoskeleton is a robotics suit being developed by Raytheon for the US Army. The XOS system was originally developed as the Wearable Energetically Autonomous Robot (WEAR) by Sarcos Research. The company was subsequently acquired by the defense contractor Raytheon in 2007.
  • The DARPA Warrior Web program aims to develop a soft, lightweight suit that would help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve Soldiers’ ability to efficiently perform their missions.
  • Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) is an un-tethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton developed by Ekso Bionics, under an exclusive licensing agreement with Lockheed Martin.  It is intended to help soldiers in combat carry a load of up to 200 pounds at a top speed of 10 miles per hour for extended periods of time.
A robotic exoskeleton that is light and comfortable is being developed by Harvard scientists for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) called the Soft 'Exosuit'.  It will help people lift heavier loads than they are naturally capable of lifting. Experts hope to eventually merge the prototype Exosuit with real clothing so it will become a second skin and benefit athletes, soldiers and those who cannot walk because of muscle injuries.

Exoskeletons in Medicine

Several companies have also created exoskeleton systems for use in medicine. For example, check out the following solutions:

  • The HULC System developed by Ekso Bionics for the military is also working on a modified version of the system for medical use. The Ekso Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System (eLEGS) is a hydraulically powered exoskeleton system that helps paraplegics to stand and walk. A variant of the system known as Mantis is being developed for use in other industries.
  • Cyberdyne has developed the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL-5),  a wearable exoskeleton cyborg-type suit, that allows the wearer to lift 10 times as much as they normally could. It is expected to be applied in various fields such as rehabilitation support and physical training support in medical field, activities of daily living (ADL) support for disabled people. Cyberdyne's HAL-5 system could also provide support for rescue workers at disaster sites.
  • Honda has been working  on their Walk Assist & Body Support systems that is now being readied for the marketplace.  It is designed for use in activities requiring extended standing or repetitive lower-body tasks.
  • ARGO Medical Technologies has partnered with innovative robotics experts YASKAWA Electric Corporation as it continues the global expansion of its ReWalk exoskeleton device which enables individuals with lower limb disabilities such as paraplegia to walk.
  • M.I.T. Biomechatronics Group is also actively working on exoskeleton technology and the development of smart prostheses that can mimic or exceed the capabilities of biological limbs.

Exoskeletons & Open Source

Various organizations and projects teams have now tapped into the 'open source' movement and practices to collaborate, share, and speed up the development of a wide range of innovative human augmentation solutions, including exoskeleton systems. For example:

  • OpenExo is a project to build and program an open source assistive lower limb exoskeleton. Also visit the OpenExo Project on GitHub.
  • Open Prosthetics Project is producing useful innovations in the field of prosthetics and freely sharing the CAD designs, open source code, and open source hardware, e.g. Arduino boards.
  • Rehab Rex is designed and developed by Rex Bionics for use in rehabilitation centers to assist with the treatment of patients under their care.
  • Titan Arm is a robotic exoskeleton which was developed using low-cost manufacturing and production techniques to cut the cost dramatically. The project team used open source software to run the device and reduce development costs.
The Titan Arm is worn by the user and augments their existing strength. It’s meant for use in occupational circumstances like those doing repetitive lifts, and for use in physical therapy. The device can be used to reduce workplace injuries like back strain, and can also be used to help victims of stroke and other injuries and disabilities to restore upper body functionality. Ordinarily, a custom exoskeleton could cost upwards of $100,000, however the Titan Arm team have managed to build a product at a total cost of around $2000.

Insurance companies may eventually cover part of the tab for medical exoskeletons because of the many health benefits and cost savings associated with providing greater mobility to many patients who are currently disabled.

* Check out Exoskeleton News posted on the news web site.


The development of human augmentation technology and exoskeletons is primed for significant growth over the coming decade(s).  Think of the many benefits to the military, manufacturing, factories, healthcare, gaming, and many other industries. As we move into the next generation of this technology and become more aware of its potential, more and more actors are getting into the game – especially the robotics and information technology (IT) industries.

Open source is already starting to play a key role in the development of human augmentation systems.  Sharing open source software, open source CAD designs, use of low cost open source hardware, open standards, open IT architecture, … are helping to speed up the development life cycle, lower costs.  and spur innovative new solutions. 

As many as 44 million workers in the European Union (EU) are affected by work-place related musculoskeletal disorders, representing a total annual cost to industry of more than $300 billion. To overcome these challenges, the Robo-Mate Project  aims to develop an intelligent, easy-to-handle, and wearable body exoskeleton for manual-handling work. The aim of the project is to reduce work related injuries and diseases thereby increase productivity, flexibility and the quality of production across Europe.

If you're looking for a hot new field to enter that will start to dominate the marketplace in the 2020-2030 timeframe, this is it.

In closing, check out this recent story in the New York Post – "Paralyzed Veterans competing in race in exoskeleton suit".  It may provide you with some inspiration.


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