A cyborg future for our knees

Roam Robotics
United States (San Francisco)

Wearables, medical devices, AI and data come together in this lightweight exoskeleton for robot rehab. And it’s been tested by former Olympic skiers.


Within a mind-blowing vision of a tech-assisted future, exoskeleton pioneers in San Francisco are building “a better knee” to help people in pain push past the boundaries of human mobility. Roam Robotics has created a customised, smart knee orthosis that delivers relief and support as an alternative to expensive, invasive surgery for people with osteoarthritis. aka “wear and tear arthritis”. What’s more, skiers and snowboarders can use it for endurance too.

Roam Robotics

But don’t expect the device to turn you into Superman; Roam just wants you to be able to “move the edge of what your body is able to do”.

Roam Robotics

Approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide do, or will, suffer from osteoarthritis, a common condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. Roam created ‘Ascend’ as a mobile knee exoskeleton for everyday activities like kneeling, squatting, ascending and descending steps and ramps, and getting in and out of chairs. It works by sensing motion through a pneumatic actuator, a device that converts compressed air into mechanical motion.

More usually powered by electric motors, levers or hydraulics, conventional exoskeletons are wearable mobile machines that can be heavy. By choosing instead to use pneumatic technology to leverage air compression, Roam’s Ascend delivers more power with less weight. Instead of being dominated by metal and motors, it uses lightweight plastics and fabric. This means that it can be used in the same way as a normal knee brace, but rigid thigh and calf cuffs provide support and translate the energy from the actuator to help knee movement. 

Roam Robotics

Available in July 2021 in the United States, Ascend’s cost-effective and non-invasive technology has the potential to transform the lives of patients with knee pain due to natural or traumatic osteoarthritis, knee instability or weak quadriceps – at all different levels of mobility and disease progression – helping people to stay physically active and maintain independence. In 2021 Roam also plans to conduct additional clinical studies and expand to post-surgery rehabilitation. But they aren’t stopping there.

Roam Robotics

Roam has launched a programme to rent exoskeletons to skiers who want to spend more time on the slopes with less pain. Now Roam founder, Tim Swift, has ambitious plans for a new exoskeleton called  ‘Elevate’ which supports your quads and knees “so you can spend more time doing what you love”.

Comprised of two braces strapped to the user’s thighs and connected to ski boots and a small backpack with a power source and device, the product is not just for disabled individuals, but could help anyone from seniors with achy knees to young guns looking to shred the slopes like a cyborg. He likes to say, “We provide magic.”

Roam Robotics

Considered a veteran of the exoskeleton industry, the mechanical engineer started working as lead inventor for Berkeley Bionics (now Ekso Bionics) back in 2005, when it was developing eLegs, a wearable  – but very expensive – exoskeleton that would enable paraplegics to walk. They would use the ‘Suck Test’ to simply understand the success of their exosuits. “It was like, could we put someone in a suit and have them not say any part of it sucks? If the word suck didn’t come up, you were doing well. With the Elevate, we actually started using the Magic Test. Our standard was, if someone tried it and didn’t tell us it was magic, we were missing the mark,” he says.

Next, he plans to apply the same magic to knee and ankle exoskeletons for performance for the military and first responders. 

“Our mission is really clear,” Tim explains. “It’s to move the boundaries of human performance, whether you’re a Navy SEAL, an everyday athlete or an aging adult trying to remain independent in your home. For each of those individuals, the boundaries are very different but make no mistake, a boundary exists. What we seek to do is to take that boundary and move it 10, 20, 30%. We’re not turning everyone into Superman. But what we are doing is moving the edge of what their body is able to do.”

AtlasAction: If you have knee instability and pain and are eager to try the new technology to overcome mobility boundaries, contact Roam here to take part in trials.

Written by

Lisa Goldapple, Editor-in-Chief, Atlas of the Future (08 February 2021)

Project leader

Tim Swift, Founder, Roam Robotics


This project has been selected as part of AgeFutures, a new storytelling project that maps the innovations transforming the lives of older people, and the designers, entrepreneurs and community leaders – across all generations – behind them. Atlas of the Future is excited to partner with Independent Age.

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