Picture the scene: A manual labourer working long hours at the factory having to carry heavy objects from one place to another for over eight hours a day. The repeated strain on his lower back causes frequent discomfort which can only be alleviated with the help of a physiotherapist. He is not alone: According to the WHO low back pain is one of the top three occupational health problems and 65% of low back pain cases in the United States are attributable effects of occupational exposures. Every weekend he joins his friends for a game of football with the risk of damaging the cartilage in his knees. By the time his retirement comes along he can’t walk without a piercing pain in his knees and lower back. This short example shows just two of the many use-cases of wearable robots. The first would be prevention. By being equipped with an assistive wearable robot, the manual labourer’s back could be supported during the long hours at the factory. Frequent bending and lifting would be supported by a powered device attached to his body. The second use-case highlights the need for wearable robots for the elderly in a medical setting. Wearable robots could support them performing everyday task without the need of any help. This could be a powered device or a passive, which would help lifting the pain.
Wearable robots, also often referred to as (powered) exoskeletons, are seen as human-assisting technologies. The industry of wearable robots is expanding at a rapid pace: In 2016 it made over $16 billion. One upcoming area of application is in industry where an increasing need has been identified to assist factory workers, helping them lift heavy objects and assisting strenuous physical tasks. This not only benefits the worker in the moment but can prevent injuries and strains in the long-term. Another area of application is health. Wearable robots can support rehabilitation after an injury or accident and can be used in the personal setting. Research in health applications for wearable robots or exoskeletons is important when considering the aging population of many developed countries. Between 2017 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years of age is expected to double to around 2.1 billion. Many elderly and patient groups experience varying degrees of mobility impairment. Assistive devices play a pivotal role in their lives and impact on their ability to live independently and perform the basic tasks of daily living.
As an emerging and not yet fully mature technology, wearable robots currently experience limitations. Often, these are related to the weight of the device. A large capacity battery is needed and in many cases it does not provide power for a satisfactory amount of time. Many wearable robots are difficult to put on and take off or the user needs special training before they can use it. However we’re still in the early stages of research on wearable robots. While first-time users might be excited by the product, what is commercially available today is many generations behind what researcher are developing. Compare it to using a feature phone in the age of smartphones.
Funding opportunities for wearable robots within the EU framework
To support research and development on wearable robots, funding is available through European innovation programmes. Below is a list of current funding opportunities from Europe's largest innovation funding scheme, Horizon 2020, and beyond:
DT-ICT-01-2019 Smart Anything Everywhere: "Smart anything everywhere" stands for the next wave of products that integrate digital technology. The challenge is to accelerate the design, development and uptake of advanced digital technologies by European industry - especially SMEs and mid-caps - in products that include innovative electronic components, software and systems, and especially in sectors where digital technologies are underexploited.
ICT-10-2019-2020 Robotics Core Technology: Autonomy in robotic systems is built on a combination of four core technologies: AI and Cognition, cognitive Mechatronics, socially cooperative human-robot interaction and model-based design and configuration tools.
ICT-09-2019-2020 Robotics in Application Areas: While robots originated in large-scale mass manufacturing, they are now spreading to more and more application areas. In these new settings, robots are often faced with new technical and non-technical challenges. The purpose of this topic is to address such issues in a modular and open way, and reduce the barriers that prevent a more widespread adoption of robots. Four Priority Areas (PAs) are targeted: healthcare, inspection and maintenance of infrastructure, agri-food, and agile production.
|Opening||16 October 2018||16 October 2018||16 October 2018|
|Deadline||02 April 2019||28 March 2019||28 March 2019|
|Budget||EUR 1,000,000||EUR 42,000,000||EUR 28,000,000|
Other funding programmes
COST Action CA16116 – Wearable Robots for Augmentation, Assistance or Substitution of Human Motor Functions: Integrate and develop diverse expertise and trans-domain competences essential to the development of a new generation of Wearable Robots, characterized by better adjustment to the human users, as well as to specific domains of application, thus allowing it to become a mainstream technology with potential for greatly expanded socio-economical impact.
Wearable robots and accelopment
With the goal of raising awareness on the potential of this technology, accelopment has helped bring wearable robot projects to life. We have successfully supported the passive medical wearable robot XoSoft and the powered exoskeleton Robo-Mate in proposal writing. XoSoft, a soft, modular, lower limb exoskeleton that elderly and disabled people can wear to assist their leg strength and support funded by the H2020-ICT-2015 (RIA) programme, has successfully presented multiple prototypes (the latest at GNB 2018). Robo-Mate, an example of a wearable robot for industry workers, developed an exoskeleton that enables workers to move locally, can be used as posture support, and can be utilised in tasks that require frequent lifting, has led to the spin-off company German Bionic.