Wearable robots are mechatronic systems that snugly interface with its user. Some recognizable examples are exoskeletons, active prostheses and haptic control devices while applications broadly range from rehabilitation and prosthetics over industry and logistics to remotely operated machines.
The drivers behind the rise of wearable robots
Long only a subject of science fiction, wearable robots are now emerging with increasing rate in and beyond aforementioned applications. This increase can be attributed to a couple of technological enablers, cultural mind shifts and socio-economic drivers.
- Specific active components such as batteries, drivers and actuators are reaching a critical power density and power-to-weight ratio at a reasonable cost which finally allows them to be used for wearable robotics.
- Also small high-reduction back-drivable power transmissions (such as harmonic drives) are becoming more widely available due to its increased use in other robotic applications. These small back-drivable transmissions are often crucial in wearable robotics for both safety and proper operation such as torque sensing.
- Bio-hacking has boomed in the past decade and has lowered the threshold for users to adopt performance enhancing equipment such as exoskeletons.
- Lastly, the past pandemic has provided us with several new insights, two of which are related to wearable robotics. Firstly, any method of alleviating the pressure on our healthcare systems has gained increased awareness. The potential of telecare – enabled by rehabilitation robotics amongst other technologies – is attracting investors towards said technologies. Secondly, our ever-growing e-commerce is continuously searching for new ways to optimize. As has become painfully clear the past years, working conditions in warehouses are hard with a high prevalence of work-related injuries. Performance-enhancing exoskeletons can literally reduce the workload and reduce the risk
of such injuries.
The challenges of Human-Robot Interface
Despite these enablers, wearable robotics still face some challenges. Regardless of form or application, they have one unique characteristic in common: they represent the ultimate Human-Robot Interface (HRI). Human and robot are literally connected by mechanically coupling specific degrees of freedom of both entities, which has several implications.