Robotics has found its way to the ski slopes.
San Francisco-based Roam Robotics has developed an exoskeleton, worn on the legs, that the company says will improve skiers’ endurance and safety while they blaze down trails. For skiers 45 or older, Roam says, the exoskeleton can provide vital support for aging knees that might be prone to injury otherwise.
Roam says its exoskeleton works like intelligent shock absorbers.
“We want to be where people’s bodies are keeping them from doing what they love to do,” says Tim Swift, Roam’s CEO and founder, referring to the company’s target market.
The device is composed of two braces that are strapped to the user’s thighs and connected to the back of ski boots with a clip. The skier also wears a small backpack that carries the power source and device controls. In total, the skier carries an extra 20 pounds, half from the device and half from the backpack.
The exoskeleton is controlled by artificial-intelligence software that Swift says can “recognize [the wearer’s] intended behaviors, based on posture and the movement you’re making.” Instead of the metal and motors that make up most exoskeletons previously developed, Roam’s device relies on plastic injection molding and sewing.
Valves force air into high-strength nylon weaves that encompass the actuators in the device. Swift says Roam’s intellectual property lies in the geometries the device creates with the fabric— which then creates motion that takes the stress off of a person’s quads.
Swift says twenty exoskeletons will be available for purchase for $2,000 on the company’s website by next January. (Those interested must make a “reservation” by paying $99, which will be a credit on the final purchase price.) Most of the models, however, will be available to rent at ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe and Park City, UT, areas. Swift says the rental price has not yet been determined.
Swift founded Roam four years ago, after nearly seven years with Ekso Bionics, which makes exoskeletons used by paraplegics, stroke victims, and others to help them walk again. But Ekso’s device, which can cost up to $100,000, was only available to a small number of people.
“I came to the realization that the devices are only as useful as the number of people you can put them on,” he says. “When I left there, we went hunting for, how do you make exoskeletons that are dramatically cheaper and simpler? How do you put them on more people?”
The answer to those questions, Swift says, is Roam Robotics’ first device, the exoskeleton aimed at skiers. Roam, which has 12 employees, has raised about $2 million in seed funding but largely relied on federal grants to fund the exoskeleton’s development.
So far, Roam has tested the device on about 100 people, both on the slopes and on a ski treadmill at the company’s headquarters. As that number increases next year with people buying and renting the exoskeleton, Swift says, the company will be keeping track of the performance. “We will have data on how they respond, when they fail, when they make bad decisions,” he says. “We are going to expand our understanding.”
Eventually, Roam wants to use its technology to reach a broader group of consumers, Swift says. “For other people, that’s going to be going up the stairs or staying mobile in their own home.”