Warrior Suit R&D Paves Road to Robotics for the Aging and Disabled

Xconomy San Francisco — 

When Rich Mahoney was director of the robotics program at SRI International, one of his main projects was an advanced robotic warrior suit that SRI was working on with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a U.S. military research institute responsible for cutting-edge R&D in fields related to national security. The idea was to create an exosuit to strengthen soldiers marching with heavy packs. The dark, tech-enhanced mock-up could have been nicknamed “Corporal RoboCop.”

The prototypes of that suit made at SRI have yet to be developed into equipment for U.S. warfighters, but Mahoney left SRI early last year to head a spinout based on the warrior suit research. His focus was not to create superhuman powers, though—it was to help aging and disabled people keep their strength closer to normal.

The startup, Superflex, now has a prototype undergarment enhanced with robotic drives and “muscles” to reinforce the body’s core strength—a key factor for an adult struggling to remain independent at home, Mahoney says. Superflex is based at the SRI campus in Menlo Park, where research on the components for DARPA laid the groundwork for the project. (You can see photos of the warrior suit and of Mahoney by clicking through the slide show in our story about Xconomy’s 2015 Robo Madness event here.)

For Mahoney, the Superflex mission was a return to goals he had already pursued for decades. Starting as a student, he had worked on the potential of robotics in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities due to spinal cord injuries and strokes. Before coming to SRI, he worked at medical device company Motorika on neuro-rehabilitation technology. He is familiar with the sizeable market.

“People are talking about service robotics now,” Mahoney says. “It’s been my entire career.”

For Superflex, the past year has been a race to test and validate a demonstration product with the goal of attracting funding beyond the seed stage, Mahoney says. While robotics and software are key elements of the project, Mahoney defines his product category as “powered clothing.” Textile designers have been part of the work from its inception. Mahoney’s cofounder at Superflex is Kate Witherspoon, who led the Robotic Soft Goods Lab at SRI International and worked on the robotic exosuit for the DARPA project. In late December, Superflex announced that it had raised $9.6 million in a Series A financing round led by Japanese venture firm Global Brain.

Now, Mahoney says, the startup can dig in and do some more rigorous product development work. Superflex just announced that it has recruited product design veteran Yves Béhar and his firm fuseproject to help with that detailed work. The industrial design firm, based in New York and San Francisco, offers expertise in areas ranging from design and brand strategy to digital components such as user experience architecture. It has worked on such varied projects as Movado watches, robotic furniture, and AI-enhanced cribs to lull babies to sleep.

Mahoney is looking to fuseproject for its input on the finished design of Superflex’s form-fitting, shoulder-to-thighs undergarment, which is equipped with batteries, computer components, and simulated “muscles” that contract as needed to aid in actions such as standing up from a chair. Behar’s firm can contribute key expertise on the user experience of aging populations, he says.

To put it mildly, Superflex has some tough and interesting challenges ahead to create a wearable, practical robotic suit that can be marketed directly to consumers by the company’s 2018 target date.

For example, the suit must fit well enough to align its “electric muscles” with the natural muscles whose actions it must boost. But it also has to be easy for an elderly or weakened person to put on and take off.

“We know that what we’re doing is difficult,” Mahoney says.

Superflex has set a high bar for itself because it will not rely on medical insurance reimbursement to market its first suit to consumers. “It must be a product people are willing to pay for out of their own pockets,” Mahoney says. The company plans to set a “reasonable price point,” but is not yet specifying a price range.

Superflex’s original product concept is about to make its public debut at the London Design Museum in an exhibition called NEW OLD, a look at the way technology and design might improve the lives of the aging.

The blue hexagons you see in the photo of the suit above are pods that contain batteries, motors and controllers that drive the “electric muscles,” which appear as the blue lines that lead from pods at one endpoint of a natural muscle to the other. The muscles getting an artificial boost include hip and back muscles and the gluteus maximus—-the strong muscle in the buttocks that’s essential for actions such as standing up and climbing stairs.

Here are some of the issues Superflex will tackle:

Sizing. How to design a form-fitting suit for a population with varying heights, girths, and body shapes. Must it be a custom-sewn for each user?

“We do believe there will be specific size ranges,” Mahoney says.

Fabric. The fabric component of the suit must be stretchable and strong to support the tech components. But what if an elderly wearer has a heart attack and ER doctors need to get it off quickly?

“Any kind of knife or scissors should be able to cut it,” Mahoney says. “We are working through all those kinds of scenarios.”

Mahoney sees the fundamental suit design as a technology platform that can be adapted for specialized purposes, such as medical rehabilitation and assisting people with muscular dystrophy or specific disabilities. Down the line, such products might be eligible for health insurance reimbursement, he says.

No matter what population the suit will serve, a key design question is how to make the suit coordinate with the wearer’s intended movements. Mahoney says the possibilities include buttons to press, or sensors on the suit combined with machine learning to detect and reinforce the user’s actions. Superflex could work with outside developers to adapt components such as biomedical sensors to create specialized versions of the suit, he says.

What about a smart voice assistant that would allow the wearer to simply say, “We’re getting up now,” I asked him.

“Any interface like that is absolutely possible,” Mahoney says.

Photo courtesy of Superflex