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Bad knees? Lockheed is working on a bionic brace

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A new bionic knee brace is in the works from a team that includes experts from defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Building on advances in rigid exoskeleton suits, the new brace uses soft robotic actuators and compliant materials, making it lightweight and, the researchers hope, practical to wear in certain real world use cases.

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Powered exoskeletons have been at the forefront of robotics research for years, but they've always run up against a market adoption problem. As mobility devices, they're just too expensive to replace wheelchairs, at least for the moment. That's left robotics visionaries searching for a market for a technology that's felt ready for prime time for years.

Exoskeletons from the likes of Ekso Bionics have found a niche market in rehabilitation, helping stroke victims, for instance, recover lost motor function. They're also beginning to see adoption in limited industrial applications, including in heavy industries like ship building, where workers hoist heavy tools overhead and are prone to repetitive stress injuries.

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The bionic knee brace is an attempt to port the same technology found in exoskeleton suits to a more specific problem: Knees tend to go bad, especially among populations that use them vigorously, such as soldiers, firefighters, and industrial workers.

The team behind the project includes members from the Georgia Institute of Technology and exoskeleton researchers with Lockheed Martin. They've teamed up with flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) companies NextFlex and StretchMed to bring a prototype one step closer to life, including human testing, in just six months.

This soft robotic design builds upon Lockheed's ONYX lower-body powered exoskeleton, which Lockheed has been developing to provide running endurance and lifting strength for soldiers and which utilizes the power of FHE to read user actions and adjust the device's knee torque in near real-time.

The prototype uses novel epidermal sensors to acquire reliable data on how a user is using their knee from moment to moment, translating that information and learning to decode the user's intent. The sensors are flat and flexible and read biometric data such as EMG, temperature, and pressure. Sensor-embedded soft actuators then provide necessary support, adding structure to portions of the knee when most beneficial. 

For now, there's no immediate roadmap to bring the prototype to market. With Lockheed's involvement, the military is a likely first customer base. But the technology could soon help some 52.5 million Americans who suffer from arthritis and osteoarthritis.

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