Roam Robotics is doing some awesome stuff in San Francisco, California, and here we get an exclusive, inside look! Their first commercial product is a robotic ski exoskeleton which you can try out this upcoming season. Read on to learn more about how it works and see inside Roam’s office.
Or, you can watch the video below for the tour plus seeing these things in action:
How did Development for these Ski Exoskeletons Begin?
If you were thinking it’s kind of a strange leap to decide to create exoskeletons for snowsports as a company’s first endeavor, you’d be right. It turns out the original application for this exoskeleton had nothing to do with skiing.
Like some other robotics startups out there (e.g. iRobot), the first influx of cash and the first development effort was for military applications. COO of Roam Robotics, Nikhil Dhongade, told me the first successful project was for the Navy SEALs.
Even before that military project, however, the foundation for the skills and technology to bring Roam to life was being put together. The CEO and Founder, Tim Swift, is probably one of the leading experts in exoskeleton technology in the world. I’m told this is in part because he’s ridiculously intelligent. The other part comes from working in this very specific niche for a long time.
His research began as a student. Swift holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley. There, he began building some of the foundational work for his latest creations. Later, he was also 1 of the original 3 people at Ekso Bionics, another successful exoskeleton company. In 2013, he jumped over to Otherlab. That company’s founder, Saul Griffith, had a vision for developing cutting-edge robotics and renewable energy tech. Otherlab would be a niche and independent Skunk Works for spinning out profitable companies in these areas. The following year, in late 2014, Swift spun out Roam Robotics from Otherlab.
Proof of Concept
The technology that was the key advancement to turn Roam Robotics into fledgling company had to do with the weight of traditional (ha!) exoskeletons. Other designs use a lot of heavy-weight metal. Of course, the heavier the robotics, the harder they are for humans to use and the less efficient they tend to be. Swift and his team wondered if they could still build powerful exoskeletons but instead make them mostly with lighter-weight plastics and fabrics.
With that Navy SEALs project, they found that yes, they could build robotic exoskeletons with mostly plastic and fabric. Yes, they were also much lighter in weight! And yes, these exoskeletons were still really powerful. These things could enable people to run faster and increase their endurance. Now, how to build a profitable company that brings this tech to consumers?
Why Not Focus on Applications for Disabled Persons?
Dhongade told me they’re often asked why the first consumer endeavor wasn’t for, say, paraplegics. While there’s no telling all the markets they’ll bring this tech to in the future, it wasn’t the smartest move for the first application.
Why not? Unfortunately for a lot of altruistic ideas, economics is a thing. Roam Robotics needed to find a niche application that had a bunch of prospective customers who could afford this expensive tech. There needed to be a very successful first product if there would ever be additional applications.
The Value Proposition: Increased Mobility
In their search, they kept in mind the key benefit Roam’s tech: increasing mobility of the user. So which industry has a bunch of customers with disposable income who would enjoy increased mobility? Why, skiing!
Once you hit middle age, you start to experience a noticeable decline in what you can do on the slopes. But what if you could increase your endurance and add some artificial muscle power? Well, then you could potentially ski like you did when you were younger: coming out of turns with more ease and getting more hours out of your legs (and that lift ticket you paid for).
How Does It Work?
For all my technical questions, I was handed over to Ashley Swartz, technical team lead at Roam Robotics. Swartz also happens to be my fellow Kettering University alumna. It was great to see that our impossibly arduous engineering education is paying off there where she’s continuing to do the impossible!
A 2-Part System: Exoskeleton and Power Pack
Swartz shows us in the video the 2 main parts of the system on their first release of this product. There’s the exoskeleton brace-like part you strap on each leg, and there’s the “power pack” you wear on your back.
The brace part contains a pneumatic actuator located by the knee.
The power pack feeds power to the exoskeleton through a retractable cord feeding through the bottom.
To control the system, you push buttons on a controller located on a shoulder strap of the power pack. You can turn it on or off and can change how powerful of a “boost” the exoskeleton gives you.
What’s Physically Happening with the Exoskeleton?
I wanted to know more exactly about how forces are applied with this thing, so Swartz explained the motion of the pneumatic actuator.
She tells us the pneumatic actuator is like an air spring. When you’re bending your knees, the actuator deflates. When you straighten your legs, the actuator inflates contributing to the power your muscles need for that action.
Even when the actuator is deflated, though, you’re getting support. Below, Swartz demonstrates sitting into the brace with the actuator deflated. The brace is anchored by the feet, and a strap wraps around the back of the thigh. So, the top strap can take some of that load from your body, just like if you were sitting into a chair.
Then, when the leg begins to extend, the smart actuator begins to expand. This contributes to the force needed to pull your body up as your knee straightens.
The technical terms for all this wizardry is “extension assist” (the extra power to push your leg straight, normally done mostly by your quadriceps) and “flexion damping” (helping your quads ease into that sitting position).
But Wait, There’s More: AI!
Plans are to incorporate AI into these devices so it will learn how you ski! Over time, it could self-adjust the way it functions to accommodate an individual’s skiing style.
Other plans keep an eye on making the core technology a platform they can use for different, future applications. That way, when they expand into other industries, they’ll minimize new engineering of redundant functionality.
Inside Roam Robotics’ Offices
I had to laugh when there was talk of “rooms” being reserved for our meetings at Roam. The main space is completely open with no dividing walls.
Some of the in-house testing uses this gigantic Woodway treadmill. Normally you’d see this guy in a hospital with a therapist sitting on its massive frame assisting a patient.
Assembly is done right there down the hall from their main office, although many of the components are manufactured elsewhere (as with approximately 99.99% of all manufactured things anywhere today).
While at the time of this interview there were a lot more positions open, as of publishing, there’s at least 1 senior mechanical engineering role still up for grabs.
By the way, it helps if you’re a skier or other athlete. While not a requirement, it sure would make your job easier to do effectively. Ashley Swartz, an athlete herself, told us one of the best perks of working at Roam Robotics is she gets to paid to play on the slopes. If an engineer can understand the user’s needs from a first-person perspective, that helps tremendously in development. And there will always be needs for real-world testing!
The catch: Tim Swift told me they do have a no *&%hole policy. While that’s bad news for *&%holes, that’s great news for everyone else.
If you’re interested in applying, check out their careers page here.
Try Them Out Yourself in Tahoe This Year!
Are you one of those early adopters and want to be one of the first to try these ski exoskeletons out? Well, you can!
The latest version is slated to be available for rent this upcoming ski season. At the time of the interview, it looked like the new version under development right now will be in Tahoe by around “Thanksgiving-ish”. (And also some other resort locations which Swartz wasn’t 100% sure on at the time.)
On this page, you can make reservations to rent the ski exoskeleton they’ve branded Elevate Ski for several resorts.
If a nearby resort isn’t listed, you can also add your name to this waitlist to be notified when Elevate Ski comes to your preferred location.
See you on the slopes!