Exoskeleton Technology Will Help People with Spinal Cord Injury
Hyundai Motor Group and other major motor vehicle companies are developing a promising new exoskeleton technology which could provide increased mobility for people with spinal cord injury. By using the highly advanced autonomous (self-driving) vehicle technology and adapting it to be compatible with personal use, it creates exciting possibilities for people with limited mobility.
Hyundai refers to this technology as ‘advanced wearable robots’, and they come in three models – the Hyundai Medical Exoskeleton (H-MEX), the Hyundai Universal Medical Assist (HUMA), and the Hyundai Waist Exoskeleton (H-WEX). Each model is designed for different purposes, but all three offer exciting possibilities in the future of assistive movement.
Advantages Beyond Self-Driving Cars
While many automobile manufacturers have seen the benefits of self-driving cars among the disabled population, Hyundai realized a unique challenge. According to Hyundai, “although autonomous cars hold the promise of giving back some freedom to people who can’t drive, they’re not much use if [that] population can’t get to the curb first. A robotic suit could help, and there’s overlap in the sensors and software, both are needed to operate safely.”
Exoskeleton Technology and Lower Spinal Cord Injury
The H-MEX (Hyundai Medical Exoskeleton) was developed specifically for people with lower spinal cord injuries. The device uses a motion control system combined with specially designed canes to allow users to sit, stand, walk, turn, and even navigate stairs and uneven ground.
While industrial use of exoskeleton technology is already available, for individual use the device’s weight, power, and cost have resulted in slower rates of adoption of this technology for mobility assistance. This technology continues to advance, however, so availability for personal use is likely not too far away.
Development of Exoskeleton Technology for Personal Use
The H-MEX technology has the most practical applications for people with spinal cord injury. It is lightweight, highly adjustable, and provides a custom experience by adjusting the gait based on walking pace, length of stride, and torso angle. This technology will provide a whole new world of mobility for people with spinal cord injury.
Hyundai isn’t the only company exploring the possibilities this technology for personal use. The spread of industrial exoskeletons has benefitted the development of these devices for mobility assistance. One hurdle is cost. These devices are expensive, and insurance companies have historically not expressed an interest in providing coverage. That could be changing, however.
Earlier this year, ReWalk Robotics, Ltd. disclosed that Cigna Corporation, a leading global health service company, revised its policy regarding coverage of exoskeleton medical devices for persons with spinal cord injury and will review submissions for personal use on a case-by-case basis.
Exoskeleton Benefits Beyond Mobility
The positive benefits of exoskeleton use go beyond increased mobility. Recent case studies performed by Spinal Cord Injury Model System Centers (SCIMS) found that many people with spinal cord injury found the exoskeletons motivating and exciting. Exoskeleton use also improved endurance, bowel, and bladder control. Users in this case study also reported less urinary tract infections and less frequent constipation.
There are also psychological benefits to exoskeleton use; standing eye-to-eye with people and participating in more activities by regaining some mobility had a positive impact on mood and improved mental health. While the technology isn’t perfected yet, early indicators are that exoskeleton use could be transformative in many ways for people with limited mobility and spinal cord injury.