Cost Action 16116 on Wearable Robots

Aims of the Cost Action 16116 on Wearable Robots

Wearable Robots (WRs) is an emerging field of personal devices that are integrated parts of human functioning, and that are constructed of typical robotic components such as actuators, sensors and control algorithms. Where conventional robots were typically intended for use in industrial environments to help in tedious and repetitive tasks and tasks requiring high precision, the situation is currently evolving to one where there is an increasing direct physical interaction between robot and human operator. The interaction with humans in WRs is not only physical, but also includes cognitive aspects, as in the interaction, control of functions is typically shared by human and machine. WRs can be used either to augment, train or supplement motor functions or to replace them completely. Wearable Robots operate alongside human limbs, as is the case in orthotic robots, exoskeletons or robotic suits. WRs are expected to find applications in Medical, Industrial and Consumer Domains, such as neuro-rehabilitation, worker support, or general augmentation. As WRs continuously interact with humans in multiple situations, Human Robot Interaction, Ergonomics, and Ethical, Legal and Societal (ELS) considerations, as well as early involvement of stakeholders are of essential interest. This Action focuses on the European integration of different underlying disciplines in science and engineering, as well as on engaging of stakeholders to improve WR technology and its societal impact.

Working Group on the Ethical, Legal, and Societal Aspects of Wearable Robots

Our contribution

H2020 CA 16116 Working Group 4: ELS on Wearable Robots



Eduard Fosch-Villaronga (lead GE), Leiden University, NL

Heike Felzmann, NUI Galway, Ireland

Ann-Marie Hughes, University of Southampton, U.K. 

Alexandra Kapeller, Linköping University, Sweden


Deborah G. Johnson, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia, Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics, Emeritus; Adjunct Professor, Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

Mohamed Bouri, Rehabilitation and Assistive Robotics at Robotics Systems Lab (LSRO) at EPFL, Switzerland

Charles Melvin Ess, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo, Norway


Wearable robots (WRs) are an emerging technology designed to augment, train or supplement motor functions. Usually worn over clothing, WRs are mechanical devices that are essentially anthropomorphic in nature, are worn by an operator and fit closely to the body, and work in concert with the operator's movements. Ideally, they work in seamless integration with the user’s (residual) musculoskeletal system and sensory-motor control, with minimal cognitive disruption and required compensatory motion. The term ‘wearable robots’ includes both exoskeletons and orthoses, which relate to WR’s purposes.

Although they also contextualize the computer in such a way that the human and computer are inextricably intertwined, WRs are different from wearable computing in general, e.g. fitness trackers, smart watches or head-mounted displays, which are also body-borne devices but lack the influence on motor functions and subsequent intertwinement of human and machine). WRs should be also distinguished from social robots, which are external to the body; and prosthesis, which replace rather than support limbs.

To provide appropriate augmentation or supplementation of physical capabilities, WRs are fastened directly to the user’s body and process vast amounts of data. Through their close human-machine interaction, active WRs may generate destructive forces whose controlled output behavior may not always be in agreement with the user’s intent. This particular, close interaction with the user raises ethical, legal and social (ELS) issues, e.g., questions about safety, responsibility, and identity, which differ from those of other, previously mentioned, robot technology types that interact differently with users, e.g., socially assistive robots.

So far, the ethical, legal and societal (ELS) implication community has insufficiently engaged with the topic of the design and use of WRs, although concepts like privacy-by-design have been developed since the 90s, and, after the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, are even legally binding in Europe. Moreover, the existing literature on the ethics of robotics has been criticized for being too distant from innovation practices and contexts of use. 

Engagement with these ELS issues is crucial, as guidance and regulation of the design of these devices are needed urgently. The EU has recognized the importance of this subject through their funding of the COST action CA16116 on Wearable Robots for Augmentation, Assistance or Substitution of Human Motor Functions, which has a dedicated working group on ELS issues (European Cooperation in Science and Technology and the framework programme Horizon 2020). The CA16116 ELS WG aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of ELS issues in Wearable Robotics, identifying relevant values and ethical, philosophical, legal and social concerns related to the design, deployment and practical use of wearable robots.

In this special issue, contributions that address the central ethical, legal, and societal issues revolving around WRs for the augmentation or supplementation of personal capabilities are considered.