The potential of brain-controlled exoskeletons

When I was little, I found it very hard to get up in the morning. When my mum would come calling me for school, I would conjure up all sorts of imaginary solutions for how I could manage to sleep a little bit longer.

My first totally absurd idea was building a remote-controlled bed that I could pre-programme to take me to school while I slumbered on.


This was abandoned when I realised the public and school infrastructure would not be able to handle a steady flow of motorised beds.

I moved on to a Wallace and Grommit "wrong trousers" invention (this was before Wallace and Gromit). This would be a mechanised frame that I could just slip into, and which would then walk me straight to school while I happily slept on. How wonderful.

Obviously I never thought it would happen.

But I was wrong. This technology is now being developed though, thankfully not for the purpose of getting lazy school children to class on time, but rather, to allow quadriplegics to walk.

Also, it's better than my invention could ever hope to be, because the mechanised functions are controlled directly by the mind, not by a programme.

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I first came across all this when I attended the "Robots on Tour" exhibition in Zurich a couple of months ago where I met Philippe Garrec, one of the key developers and inventors of the Hercule and Emy programmes.

He had one of his prototypes with him (picture above).

We spent some time talking about conventional exoskeletons and the difference between all the various projects in development, and what differentiates the commercial and military ventures. (For example, a lot of the military exoskeletons are powered with conventional gasoline/diesel meaning the units feature combustion engines, which weigh them down and pose health and safety risks. Most of the commercial and European projects, on the other hand, are powered by electricity — which introduces different sorts of risks and restrictions related to voltage).

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That exoskeletons were entering the commercial world was cool enough, but then Garrec filled me in on the latest part of his work, which was related to his collaboration with brain scientists at the University of Grenoble in France.


He explained how his work was now focusing on the fantastic possibility that one day soon we might be able to combine exoskeleton technology with brain implants to ensure that the paralysed or quadriplegic could control their movements.

Garrec keeps me updated on developments in this field, and has just sent me an english translation of an article that appeared in Les Echos referencing his work.

Via World Crunch (my emphasis):

GRENOBLE - Since 2009, a team of 30 researchers from the Clinatec biomedical platform of the French Alternative Energies And Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) has been tackling a huge challenge: allowing quadriplegics to walk and open a door thanks to a brain-controlled implant system.

For this to happen, the CEA is relying on different technologies that it is developing in-house, in the fields of neuroscience, software and robotics. The man behind the project – called BCI for “Brain Computer Interface” – is Doctor Alim-Louis Benabid, a world-renowned brain specialist and former head of the neurosurgery department at Grenoble University Teaching Hospital. In the 1990s, he developed a deep cerebral simulation technique for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Benabid managed to convince the director of technological research at the CEA to create a research institute dedicated to neuroscience. He is also the one who decided that the institute’s first project should target mobility impairment.

“We wanted to start with a project that means something, that provides a clear benefit to patients,” explains Dr. Benabid. “We also wanted to use different kinds of cutting-edge technology: micro and nano-electronics, implantable devices, robotics.” We finally agreed on an exoskeleton piloted by the brain because “it allows the user to recover an almost natural mobility,” says the researcher. But also “because no one has been able to achieve this before.”


This is pioneering work to say the least. I encourage everyone to read the full article because it gives more detail about how the science of controlling things with your brain works.

The short story, however, is that a 5-cm implant called Wimagine that records and broadcasts electric activity must be implanted into your brain. But they're still in the data gathering stage. They've experimented with animals thus far, but the scientists hope that the first human implant will take place as early as the end of this year. This can then help them to collate data on brain activity, and see how it is linked to intended movement.


The aim then is to link the 'intended movement' signals with exoskeleton control.

Garrec is working on EMY which represents the exoskeleton side of the project. The current prototype weighs about 60 kg and includes about 20 motors, but the goal is to reduce the weight and improve the dexterity.

He and his team are due to present the project at this month's SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim.


Interestingly enough, whilst this sort of technology immediately directs my neurological pathways to Hollywood movies like Alien, Robocop and Surrogates to my mind, when I asked Garrec if it was Ridley Scott that inspired his efforts, he admitted he had never seen the film, or the exoskeleton scenes with Sigourney Weaver.

But I guess he's making much nicer and more purposeful exoskeletons.

Though I do wonder if he will take the time out to see Elysium?

See the EMY exoskeleton in action here: