Japanese Robots: Argo's ReWalk Exoskeleton Gets a Pile of Yaskawa Robot Money
“Yes hello, this is Yaskawa again - Konnichiwa! Yeah so, our assistive robotics stuff already got coverage this month, but we also just sealed a deal to finance, further develop, and distribute life-changing robotic prosthetics from Israel, so like, you know, just sharing news and stuff.” You’ve been busy, Yaskawa.
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Yaskawa Assistive Robotics, Week #2: Investment, Tech Sharing, and Asian Distribution Deals for Argo Medical's ReWalk Exoskeleton
In a strategic agreement announced earlier this week, Japan’s Yaskawa Electric and the multinational Argo Medical Technologies plan to collaborate on the further development and East Asian marketing of Argo's ReWalk exoskeletal prosthetic. Yaskawa will provide Argo with financial backing, robotics expertise, and a distribution platform in Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Korea. In return, Yaskawa’s homegrown assistive robotics tech gets a path to markets in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
Argo Medical Technologies’ ReWalk: The Wheelchair’s Nemesis
Founded in Israel in 2001, and now headquartered there, in the U.S., and in Germany, Argo is basically a one-product outfit - but it’s a pretty fantastic product. The ReWalk exoskeleton is designed to return bipedal mobility to individuals with severe lower limb disabilities such as injury-related paralysis, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy - whatever it might be that’s keeping a patient from walking - and the design is working.
Unlike the bulk of deployed or in-trial exoskeletal assistive devices, ReWalk can provide minimal force amplification, resistance, or complete force replacement; it can be both an assistive robotic device, or a proper prosthetic that replaces a fundamental function of the human body. Importantly, the ReWalk system functions much like the our natural lean-forward-put-one-foot-in-front gait, and while the tech is high, the biomechanics of it all is organically simple: essentially begin a slow “fall” forward; catch yourself with a leg; repeat. These robotic pants can either augment that process, provide therapuetic resistance, or take over the whole process for a user.
Current models do require the use of hand crutches to stabilize movement, but if the options are 1. Never walk again until there’s a cure for my disease or a 3D-printed spinal cord shows up, or 2. Walk right now but with crutches that are only temporary until the technology gets awesomer - there’s really not much debate to be had: the wheelchair loses. Loses hard. (At least one variation of the exoskeletal pants concept is self-powered and self-balancing, see Rex Bionics video below.)
Perhaps the best thing about the ReWalk devices is that they aren’t the hurry-up-and-wait, gee-whiz someday, someday-if-we’re-lucky assistive robotics products of the future we so often read about - these devices already have years of testing, are about to be approved by the American FDA, and one even carried a paraplegic through 10km of the Tel Aviv marathon earlier this year. Have a look at Mr. Radi Kaiuf here. His. Legs. Do. Not. Work... but still, this:
Of course neither Argo’s ReWalk system nor offerings from competitors like Ekso Bionics, Rex Bionics (video below), NASA’s X1, or the super-light and super-slim Vanderbilt/Parker Hannifin exoskeleton are going to get rid of wheelchairs right away - probably not even within the next 10 years - but the day when the whole rolling around in a chair concept seems quaint is probably not too far off (Contrary to major plot elements from Avatar. Come on now James Cameron, you can’t really think that interstellar spaceflight and wheelchairs will coexist. Seriously, who are you talking to about the future?).
Suffice it to say, the Big Wheelchair industry, its super high-powered executives, the wheelchair lobbyists (who totally exist... maybe), they best pay attention - their days are numbered!
Aside from the obvious mobility benefits, as countless tech and medical news outlets have in recent years taken to reminding those of us on the internet, the human body doesn’t want to be sitting all the time; it stifles blood flow, makes us chubby, etc., etc. So, in addition to ReWalk just being a better, more natural way to get around, Argo is also investigating the secondary and tertiary health effects/benefits of spending more time upright, strapped into the company’s tech:
- Effects on bone density
- Decrease in % body fat
- Improvements in cardiorespiratory function
- Improved bowel/bladder function
- Improved sitting posture
- Decreased pain
- Decreased spasticity
We’d all like to see these made available, and though personal models are available in some markets, for the time being most force-replacement robotic exoskelets are confined to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. While the devices are currently quite expensive, market economics would suggest that this nascent, yet already healthily competitive industry, catalyzed by high-level, high tech, big name & big money partnerships like this of Yaswaka & Argo, will see ReWalk’s current U.S. $70,000 price tag begin to drop; competitors will have to follow suit, produce better products, etc., and there you go. Some devoted and talented roboticists will get filthy rich (or at least moderately soiled rich), and a whole lot of people who previously could not, well - they get to walk again - a round of wins for everyone, and hooray for capitalism!
So Yeah, Yaskawa is Seriously Going Assistive with the Robots
This is September’s second such announcement from heretofore only-famous-for-industrial-robots Yaskawa Electric, and along with last week’s rehab robot news, we’re definitely ready to take the J-robotics giant seriously; Yaskawa is not simply padding a public profile and making itself a seat on the bandwagon, the 98 year-old Japanese robotics giant, anticipating their 100-year anniversary, is faithfully adhering to the assistive robotics directives in its Roadmap 2015 mission statement thingy. In doing so, Yaskawa will be the first large-scale Japanese robotics manufacturer to seriously commit to developing assistive robotics alongside their legacy industrial machines.
As a whole, the Japanese assistive robotics industry is in a very good state. Japanese tech firms from relative startup Cyberdyne to no explanation required Honda are pouring money and expertise into development and deployment, the government is pouring in marked-for-robotics-development-only funding, and based on vanguard robotics usage and safety guidelines developed here, an international standardization organization is using the J-model as a globally applicable template.
Yaskawa’s case in point investment is particularly shrewd for two reasons: 1. The ReWalk system cuts both ways; it's able to provide assistive/resistive force during rehabilitation, or function as a complete force replacement device. This gives ReWalk a huge advantage over Cyberdyne, Panasonic's ActiveLink, and even mighty Honda's devices - none of which function beyond feedback-activated force amplification. 2. Hitting the ground running; without having to reinvent the exoskeletal wheel, Yaskawa will have a near market-ready device among its domestic assistive robotics offerings - this is a considerable advantage over not only other Japanese industrial robot manufacturers looking to break into the sector, but also over J-exoskeleton makers who've spent years and years on their proprietary systems.
Granted, it’s not pure altruism and a corporate culture of selfless dedication to improving society through robotics for the sake of improving society through robotics; the other side of the issue is that, arguably, Japan’s domestic industrial robotics market is reaching stasis, so it makes sense that, in addition to taking their industrial robots to China, Yaskawa would diversify into assistives to maintain growth.
And also do its part to end the reign of the barbaric wheelchair.
“Hello, Yaskawa? Yeah, this is AkihabaraNews.com’s weekly Japanese robotics feature. Was just wondering... Could you guys take a week or two off? Yes, you're one of very few massive J-tech firms that's actually thinking ahead and reacting dynamically to a rapidly evolving market (looking at you, Sony, with your baffling dedicatiion to the PSP), and well done on that, but we kinda need to talk about other companies and their robot stuff next week, so maybe, like, you know, any chance you could ease up on the being awesome a bit?”
We'll see how that goes. In the meantime, a word from the competition:
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Images: Argo Medical Technologies; Yaskawa Electric; AkihabaraNews.com