Robotic exoskeletons and bionic prostheses have moved from science fiction to science reality in the last decade. These robotic devices for assisting human movement are now technically feasible given recent advancements in robotic actuators, sensors, and computer processors. However, despite the ability to build robotic hardware that is wearable by humans, we still do not have optimal controllers to allow humans to move with coordination and grace in synergy with the robotic devices. We consider the history of robotic exoskeletons and bionic limb prostheses to provide a better assessment of the roadblocks that have been overcome and to gauge the roadblocks that still remain. There is a strong need for kinesiologists to work with engineers to better assess the performance of robotic movement assistance devices. In addition, the identification of new performance metrics that can objectively assess multiple dimensions of human performance with robotic exoskeletons and bionic prostheses would aid in moving the field forward. We discuss potential control approaches for these robotic devices, with a preference for incorporating feedforward neural signals from human users to provide a wider repertoire of discrete and adaptive rhythmic movements.
Ferris and Schlink are with the Human Neuromechanics Laboratory, School of Kinesiology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.