Knee pain? Achy joints? Passive bionic devices are coming

Given enough time, all machines will break. Your body is a complex machine. Ergo …

Engineers have long tried to improve on our perishable meaty parts. Tools, weapons, and armor came first. Powered exoskeletons have emerged in the last five years, offering a glimpse at a future when wearable robots will be commonplace. But examples from the current generation of commercially available powered exoskeletons are heavy, cumbersome, and expensive. Those tradeoffs are easier to overlook for people living with paralysis, but for able-bodied individuals looking to increase strength and endurance or reduce day-to-day bodily stresses, powered robotic suits are nowhere near ready for prime time.

But unpowered or passive bionic devices, which are beginning to creep out of the lab, offer a tantalizing alternative. Compact and comparatively inexpensive, these devices use clever engineering to reduce strain and increase biomechanical efficiency without the use of motors or batteries.

One of the newest examples is a bionic knee brace from Canadian startup Spring Loaded Technology.

“Our brace stores kinetic energy as you bend your knee and then releases that energy when you straighten your leg,” says Chris Cowper-Smith, CEO of Spring Loaded, which plans to release its adjustable Levitation brace in early 2016. “It’s a simple concept, although the engineering behind it is very involved.”

The potential market for a knee brace that can reduce strain and enhance biomechanical efficiency and performance is huge. If you’re an athlete or over fifty, or if you’re carrying around a few too many pounds, it should come as no surprise that we’re a creaky-jointed species. Some 52.5 million Americans suffer from arthritis and with rising life expectancies your risk of knee osteoarthritis is a cringe-worthy 45%.

The Levitation brace uses a liquid spring. Despite what they taught me in science class, some liquids are indeed compressible. Springs like the one in Levitation utilize that property to store and release energy.

“Our engineering went into miniaturization,” Cowper-Smith tells me. “We tried metal springs, tried polymers, tried gas springs. In the end we found that a liquid spring enabled us to come up with a device that was compact and powerful.”

To read the rest of this article, published in ZDNet, please click here.