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Innovations - Hyundai Exoskeleton

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News May 2017

Hyundai Motor Company jumped into the exoskeleton game in January by unveiling not one, but three new exoskeletons.

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Powered exoskeletons that help people with spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D) walk have been available for a while now. However, new versions of the devices still garner plenty of attention, especially when they’re made by an automobile giant. Hyundai Motor Company jumped into the exoskeleton game in January by unveiling not one, but three new exoskeletons to a packed convention hall of media and others during the 50th annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Moving Beyond Cars

The automaker introduced the H-MEX, HUMA and H-WEX at CES in an effort to “provide customers with personal mobility solutions and freedom beyond the automobile.” The H-MEX (Hyundai Medical Exoskeleton) helps people with lower level SCIs regain the ability to walk. The HUMA (Hyundai Universal Medical Assist) provides assisted mobility support for people with limited muscular power, such as from a stroke. The H-WEX (Hyundai Waist Exoskeleton) provides upper-body and hip support for workers doing repetitive manual work or lifting heavy objects.

“We have a vision that Hyundai Motor will become more than just a manufacturer of cars, and the advances we make in assistive robotic technologies will allow us to offer customers new levels of mobility freedom,” says Tae Won Lim, head of Hyundai Motor Central Advanced Research and Engineering Institute. “In the future, we hope our pioneering exoskeleton devices will enrich the daily lives of users and form the basis for us to provide more mobility platforms for the well-being of our customers.”

Bringing Things Together

Neither the HUMA or the H-WEX were physically shown at the presentation, but there were plenty of oohs and aahhs when Hyundai Senior Engineer Dong-Jin Hyun, PhD, used the H-MEX to walk on stage. The sleek, lightweight-looking prototype with an aluminum frame uses a wireless clutch with an onboard motion control system to give paraplegics the ability to sit, stand, move, turn and even walk up or down stairs. Hyun says Hyundai can develop its line of exoskeletons because of its “large amount of expertise in developing and manufacturing devices such as sensors, actuators and batteries that are key components for making autonomous vehicles.” Hyun, one of the lead engineers in creating the exoskeletons, says to make self-driving cars and exoskeletons reliable, they also share similar needs to understand their environments and be able to process large amounts of data.

“We want to bring these things out in the technologies together,” he says.

The H-MEX and HUMA are powered by removable and rechargeable batteries, and their lightweight frames are adjustable in length to fit different sizes of user for ultimate comfort. The lower back and knees are supported with harness fixture points, while the devices change shape and flex around the artificial joint structures of the robotic frame to manage body posture and deliver gait efficiency for walking. In this vein, H-MEX provides an individually tailored gait pattern adjustment by calculating a series of factors, including walking pace, length of stride and torso tilting angle via an application program installed in a smart device. Additionally, HUMA uses a series of advanced joints and mechanisms to align its movements with those of the user, enabling agile motion. The H-WEX is similar to the H-MEX and HUMA but is designed to help provide safety and efficiency in the workplace. This exoskeleton is almost like a real-life Iron Man suit that helps people lift heavy objects and perform other strenuous or repetitive activities. Activating the Waist Assist function enables the H-WEX to flex its joints at up to 180 degrees per second, with an operating algorithm built in to ensure ultimate user safety. As with the other exoskeletons, the frame of the device supports and protects the user’s lower back and upper legs for optimal body positioning and is lightweight to ensure portability and ease of use.

A Game Changer?

No price or timetable has been set for the new Hyundai exoskeletons to be released, but just their announcement and display at CES created plenty of buzz. The rumble comes from the fact that a major automaker is now involved in making exoskeletons, which could be a game-changer in terms of availability and especially price. There are exoskeletons still in development and several already on the market. ReWalk is among the companies that has one commercially available now and has even received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, the current price of an exoskeleton can reach roughly $77,000 or more (depending on benefits and grants for people such as military veterans). It’s believed Hyundai’s existing factories and ability to mass produce mobility devices can bring that price down.

“We have skills and capabilities to produce these exoskeletons in sufficient quantities to truly make a difference in people’s lives,” Hyun says.

 

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