Bionic Power strides into new field trials with U.S. Army

By next fall, new field trials will see U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Marines become their own power sources simply by walking, thanks to an idea conceived in a Simon Fraser University lab and developed in Vancouver by Bionic Power Inc.

During the trials, soldiers will forego the cumbersome 16-20 pounds of batteries they typically carry to power their electronics during three-day missions. Instead, their strides will provide the power, using Bionic Power’s PowerWalk® Kinetic Energy Harvester. The lightweight, leg-mounted exoskeleton harvests energy from the natural action of walking.

Bionic Power Inc., which spun out of early research led by Max Donelan, a professor in SFU’s biomedical physiology and kinesiology department, has landed a contract with the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Bionic Power has been working with the U.S. Army over the past two years to develop and test the energy-harvesting technology under a US$3.8-million contract. Based on the success of that work, the company recently signed a US$1.25-million contract extension to supply a number of pre-production PowerWalk® Kinetic Energy Harvesters. These units will be used for military field trials under the U.S. Joint Infantry Company Prototype (JIC-P) program. The trials will involve both the Marine Corps and the Army, and are expected to begin in mid-2017.

Donelan, one of the company founders and original inventors of the technology, says the latest advance takes the innovation a step closer to the goal he and his team envisioned nearly a decade ago.

“The concept grew from the simple notion that power from our bodies is both efficient and portable,” says Donelan, a director of the Bionic Power. His SFU lab developed the initial version of wearable tech. The research was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) grant.

The researchers were aiming to revolutionize how portable battery-powered devices are charged, with a view to reducing costs and batteries, and increasing convenience. The concept quickly became attractive in military circles, as well as in medical and general consumer markets.

Says Donelan, “Bionic Power has accomplished a great deal in turning the initial concept into a viable commercial product that is now beginning to attract interest from a significant number of countries beyond the U.S. and Canada.”

Adds Yad Garcha, Bionic Power’s chief executive officer, “Military organizations around the world are looking for ways to take weight off the backs of their troops. Wearing one of our PowerWalk® harvesters reduces battery weight while providing continuous, potentially life-saving power in the field for communications, navigation and optics. That’s a pretty compelling value proposition for military decision-makers.”

The device can generate between 10-12 watts of electricity. Walking for an hour can provide enough electricity to charge up to four smart phones.

Strapped to the knee, the device uses sensors and a real-time control system to assist leg muscles when slowing the knee’s motion is necessary. The system intelligently controls the torque it applies to the knee throughout the walking cycle, harvesting energy from the body whenever it is available without increasing user effort.

When first developed eight years ago, Donelan published his research in the journal Science, while Time Magazine, the New York Times and other media touted the device as one of the year’s top inventions.

Bionic Power Inc. is one of 10 companies to make the 2016 Ready to Rocket Life Science list, reserved for B.C. tech companies that are best positioned to “capitalize on the technology sector trends that will lead them to faster growth than their peers.”

The upcoming field trials are expected to play a vital role in helping Bionic Power prepare for volume production.