For a person who’s been navigating the world in a wheelchair, it’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to issue the commands: “Alexa, I’m ready to stand up,” and “Alexa, I’m ready to walk.”
Bionik Labs’ ARKE is the latest robotic exoskeleton that enables paraplegic people to rise to their feet and walk using their paralyzed legs. And it’s the first to integrate the hardware with the Amazon Echo platform, allowing exoskeleton users to control the device with simple voice commands addressed to Amazon’s Alexa, the virtual assistant used in home automation.
ARKE is still a prototype; the company hopes to bring it to market within the next few years. Company cofounder and COO Michal Prywata says the ARKE’s voice-control system will set it apart from the few exoskeletons that are already available to consumers, because it will make the ARKE easy to use in the home. “There’s a huge opportunity for us in the home exoskeleton market, which hasn’t been tapped into yet,” he says.
With the voice commands, users can trigger the exoskeleton’s basic actions—standing up and sitting down, walking and stopping—and tweak parameters like stride length.
They can also ask for information by saying, for example: “Alexa, what’s my battery status?” And because Amazon’s platform uses natural language processing, users don’t need to speak a precise sequence of words. A user could also say, “Alexa, how much power is left in the battery?” and get the same information. Prywata sees that flexibility as a big advantage: “The user doesn’t have to think about it too much,” he says.
The other exoskeletons on the market are the Ekso GT (see demo), which is only intended for use in hospitals and rehab clinics; the ReWalk (see demo), which is approved for both clinical and at-home use, and the Indego, also approved for both the clinic and the home. These devices are programmed and controlled by various types of buttons and interfaces, or have sensors that detect when users shift their weight forward to trigger a stand-up or a step forward. The ARKE also includes such sensors to trigger steps.
Bionik Labs’ existing products are upper body robotics used primarily in stroke rehab, and they’re intended only for the clinic, not the home. The company plans to bring its ARKE exoskeleton to rehab clinics, but not initially in the United States. “We haven’t targeted the United States because ReWalk and Ekso have been there for quite some time already on the clinical side,” says Prywata. “So Asia is our target market there.”
But Prywata says the at-home market is still wide open in the United States, because “no one’s done it properly yet.” He says 60 percent of the company’s R&D is now devoted to making a new exoskeleton that’s optimized for home use, and which would be cheaper and more lightweight. Such a device would be intended not only for people with paralysis due to a spinal cord injury or stroke, but also people who have mobility problems stemming from disorders like multiple sclerosis.
Exoskeletons could even become everyday helpers for the elderly, he says. “An exoskeleton for the aging population could have much broader use: anyone that has some sort of disability in walking that’s severe enough to require a walker or two canes,” Prywata says.
To integrate the ARKE with the Amazon Echo platform, the Bionik Labs team got everything they needed from Amazon’s software developer kit. But to take the next step—to get medical regulators to approve their exoskeleton as a commercial product suitable for at-home use—the team will likely need direct input from Amazon, Prywata says.
The whole system, including the voice-control features, will need to meet certain medical safety standards, and Prywata doesn’t think Amazon’s Alexa has previously been approved by medical regulators. “I’m assuming this is the first time a medical device has been integrated into their platform,” he says. To be certain, maybe he should ask Alexa.