Poleznye Roboty (Useful Robots) is the only company in Russia that sells exoskeletons it developed. Its products make a person about one-third stronger and significantly lessen fatigue. So far, only five have been actually bought: four by the Sberbank logistics center and one by a Swedish logistics company. The project team plans to begin trials for a new upper body exoskeleton in the coming months at the Hyundai motor plant and other companies. Igor Orlov, the company’s CEO and principal owner, shared some of its plans with Invest Foresight.
The Smart Chair Operation
In March, the first surgery was performed using the exoskeleton, ExoChair, at Regional Hospital No. 2 in Rostov-on-Don. It lasted 12 hours. The hospital agreed to test the device for the company; they liked it and are now thinking about purchasing or leasing it. The developers, in turn, saw how they could improve the ExoChair.
So how does it work? The exoskeleton for the lower part of the body, or ‘smart chair,’ helps reduce the load on certain groups of muscles and joints of the legs and back while working in a standing or sitting position, holding the body steady in an uncomfortable position. These functions proved helpful in the operating room, when assembling machinery, in a warehouse, etc. When a person needs to stand for eight hours at work, it gets hard. The smart chair is attached to the waist and legs, so when the user needs to sit down they just sit down, as the height of the chair can be adjusted by pressing a button that activates the gas springs installed in the knee hinges of the exoskeleton. ExoChair can be customized to fit a particular person from 165 to 190 cm tall. Its weight is about 4.5 kg.
“We are now developing a control system that memorizes the last or most frequent position, so in the future, the user will not have to press any button – the exoskeleton will assume the desired position itself,” says Igor Orlov.
The RUR 150,000 ($2,300) ExoChair is cheaper than its foreign counterparts, SuitX legX (USA) and Chailess Chair (Switzerland), worth $6,000 and $4,350, respectively.
From Sberbank to Hyundai
The Useful Robots team is comprised of developers from the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The company was registered in Skolkovo in August 2016 and is a Skolkovo resident. Igor Orlov controls the company with 75%, while Alexei Filatov holds 25% of shares through Yarobot, according to the Kontur.Focus service. In 2018, its revenue was small, as only one exoskeleton was sold. The project began to develop with grants from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research; now grants from the Bortnik and Skolkovo funds have been added to the pool; the total amount of grants is not disclosed. To move on and make a profit, they need to sell at least 100 exoskeletons a year.
The first exoskeleton developed by the team was designed for restoring people’s motor functions following injuries and serious diseases. In 2015, following the Skolkovo Robotics conference and exhibition, the Useful Robots team decided to produce industrial exoskeletons: the first ExoChair models were tested at Sberbank’s Physical Cash Flow Accounting Center and Logistics Center as well as during the assembling of gas engine buses’ running gear at the Bakulin Motors Group investment and production company. The Karfidov Lab design bureau helped with creating the device’s industrial design. After the tests, Sberbank made a decision to purchase devices, and by April 2019, it will receive three new exoskeletons. Sberbank has several logistics centers that store paper documents. The customer from Sweden is not disclosed.
After that, Useful Robots was approached by several companies to test exoskeletons, including Hyundai, Severstal, RUSAL, and Gazprom Neft. Hyundai’s plant in St. Petersburg has some 1,200 people involved in assembling work alone, and one third of them need exoskeletons – not only for lower body parts but also for arms and the back. Car assembling requires physically demanding tasks such as sitting in an uncomfortable position for a long time when assembling parts in underhood space. While assembling running gear, a worker often has to stand in the hands up position, which requires exoskeletons for arms and the back. According to preliminary calculations, these devices can take the weight of up to 30 kg off a worker’s upper and lower back. Useful Robots plan to produce the upper body prototype in April or May; the device will operate on gas springs and possibly pneumatic muscles.
The South Korean company has been developing exoskeletons for several years as well; one of them reminds a cyborg suit and allows lifting weights of up to 100 kg. A research conducted at Hyundai showed that those who experienced excessive work load showed 30% less efficiency in the afternoon, while those wearing knee- and back-supporting exoskeletons throughout the working day continued to demonstrate the same level of efficiency and less fatigue.
Towards Making a Cyborg
Useful Robot’s exoskeleton will become increasingly smart. This year, ExoChair will start collecting data on a user’s condition, such as body and limbs position, with the use of sensors. Together with myographic tracing, these data will be used for training a neural network that will help develop a control system algorithm. This will allow foreseeing the position of a user’s body position and fix the exoskeleton in the best position. It is important for companies to monitor their workers’ vitals such as heart rate and blood pressure, and exoskeleton sensors will help collect this information in challenging working conditions.
“The next stage is creating soft exoskeletons as rigid structures restrict the range of motion”, Orlov says.
The developer has already received a grant for this purpose. Active exoskeletons that not only reduce but can fully take weight off workers are a thing of the future. Solving this task primarily requires new types of batteries and drives, as well as new interfaces for an operator’s interaction with an exoskeleton.
By Natalia Kuznetsova