There are easier tasks than developing systems as complex as an exoskeleton. Exoskeletons need to be lightweight, compact, powerful, reliable, and easy to use. Many universities and engineers are currently working on the problem, to varying degrees of success. After all, building a mechatronic system that emulates the human gait is a great engineering challenge.
A promising approach comes from the Taiwan-based company FREE Bionics Taiwan Inc. The company was founded in October 2016 as a spin-out from the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), a leading institute on developing new technology in Taiwan. FREE Bionics has set itself the ambitious goal of becoming the global market leader in exoskeletons and is displaying an impressive speed in the pursuit of that goal: Besides the headquarters based in Taiwan, the company also has offices in Hong Kong and Japan, and is planning additional branches in Europe and the US. The number of employees is currently at about 40, soon to be 60. “We want to improve our customers' quality of life by developing innovative exoskeleton systems and offering related services,” says YC Lei, head of operations.
A diverse team as a success factor
To achieve this, the company has brought together experts from different fields. In addition to various engineers, FREE Bionics also employs physiotherapists and people with spinal injuries. “They all have more than ten years of experience in their respective disciplines.” They work together to integrate robot technology into the design of the exoskeleton while keeping in mind the preferences of their customers. The system needs to be lightweight, compact, robust, not too expensive, and easy to use. “It's a challenging task. However, we feel rewarded whenever we see our customers smile when they try out our product.” The company's focus isn't just on people who are fully paraplegic but also on people with walking disabilities. The current exoskeleton model weighs 20 kg and has a battery runtime of about two hours.
For the development of its exoskeleton, FREE Bionics relied on collaboration with maxon motor from the start. “maxon is a technology pioneer,” says YC Lei. “In addition, the company is the only supplier whose drives fulfill all our requirements.” And that's a long list, including high torque density, compact design, long service life, and an affordable price. In the end, the engineers found their optimal solution in the brushless EC 90 flat motor. The motor has a MILE encoder and is controlled with an EPOS positioning controller from maxon. Though YC Lei is satisfied with the results so far, the development continues. In maxon, he has found the right partner. “The cooperation is just excellent!»