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This wearable robotic knee brace may put an end to your knee pain

The Ascend smart knee orthosis from Roam Robotics wants to make you more mobile.

If you're one of the millions of people who suffer from knee pain, you know it can severely affect your daily life. The Ascend is a smart knee orthosis that can help people with osteoarthritis or knee injuries move with less pain. Designed by San Francisco-based Roam Robotics, it uses air compression to support the knee and take the strain out of the quadriceps muscle. 

There's a huge potential market for wearable devices to help improve mobility. The American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates that more than 750,000 knee replacements were performed in 2017 in the US  alone. Exoskeletons designed to help augment human strength or reduce injury aren't new. But the Ascend is an orthosis specifically designed for people who have exhausted the pain management options of physical therapy and traditional braces. It's also made of plastic and fabric rather than metal, so it's lightweight at 2.5 pounds. Roam Robotics says the Ascend can help delay or even avoid surgery altogether.

I got to try a prototype Ascend and strapped on the smart knee to try a few everyday activities, like walking up and down steps or moving from a sit to a stand position. Getting used to the Ascend takes a few minutes, but after I stopped thinking about the robotic orthosis on my body, I hardly noticed it at all. 

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Wearing the Ascend to ascend some steps.

Celso Bulgatti/CNET

Even though I don't experience knee pain, I still felt the substantial support from the orthosis when I walked up and down steps. A sitting mode can help you with movements like lowering down or getting up from a seated or squatted position. The user can also choose the level of support and change between different modes on a remote. "Ultimately the goal of a robot like this is you don't want to feel like you're being driven by a machine, you want to feel like you're the one in control," Roam Robotics CEO Tim Swift tells me.

The Ascend is powered by a smart pack that weighs around 10 pounds. Worn like a backpack, it has processors that recognize the movements you're making and then lets the orthosis provide the correct support for the muscle group. The smart pack also contains the battery and an air compressor. Depending on the activity level, you should be able to get around two hours of runtime from a single charge. An accompanying app can also score how your mobility is changing over time.

Watch the video on this page for more details on how the Ascend works and the experience of CNET senior producer Mitchell Chang (who does suffer from knee pain) when he tried it on.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Roam Robotics will let you take the Ascend for a test run. The version available to customers is completely custom fabricated and made to your exact limb measurements. It's also registered by the Food and Drug Administration as a Class I device, which means it may be partially or fully covered by your private health insurance or Medicare, but the outright cost is around $7,000.