Let’s be honest here, the human body may be a wonderful miracle of nature, but it’s more than a little fragile. We are not all that strong and it doesn’t take much to mess up a human body, so the idea of using machines to help us survive in a harsh world is not all that strange.
Powered exoskeletons are possibly the ultimate expression of this type of augmentation – at least insofar as we’re talking about augmentation that does not require modifications to your body. A powered exoskeleton is a machine that you can use while you need it, and then leave it behind when you are done.
A powered exoskeleton is essentially a robot that you wear. It mimics your movements closely so that it feels natural and simply makes you stronger, faster, or tougher. We’ve seen powered exoskeletons a lot in science fiction media. As I alluded to in the title, Iron Man is probably one of the most famous examples. In the Iron Man stories, a wealthy engineering genius decides to turn himself into a Super Hero by building a suit of powered armor. This “Iron Man” suit gives him a near invulnerability to bullets or other impact, and lets him fly and lift heavy objects with ease.
A lot of what the Iron Man suit can do will likely forever be fiction, but for the more practical aspects of the technology we’ll be seeing more and more powered suits in the future. In this article I want to go over some of the facts about powered exoskeletons and then look at a few real-world suits that may one day be put into practice.
Use of Powered Exoskeletons
Although it should be sort of obvious, I still think it’s worth talking about how one would actually use these powered exoskeletons. Certainly, making people who have to perform physical labor stronger and tougher has general benefits overall, but there are some specific industries that are most interested in having such suits as part of their tool chest.
Military Use Cases
Various militaries around the world are interested in using powered exoskeletons for various reasons. You may think that combat itself is at the forefront of these needs, since whenever we see these suits in movies that’s what they are used for. The truth is that most of what a military does is in support of combat and not combat itself. Personnel have to do a lot of lift-and-place work, such as when loading heavy ammo into vehicles. Soldiers spend much of their time walking with heavy equipment packs on their backs.
If you can provide a soldier with a lower-body exoskeleton that stops them from feeling fatigued when walking long distances, that’s already a serious advantage. Exoskeletons are therefore most useful as a way to improve troop mobility.
Civilian Use Cases
In civilian roles, there are more applications for the technology than one can count. First of all, robots are still a long way from having the dexterity and intelligence of a human worker. So putting a person in an exoskeleton goes some way towards combining the best of both worlds.
Powered exoskeletons are likely to find uses in heavy industries or construction. A great example is the system created by a company called Ekso Bionics, which is best known at this point for creating exoskeletons that allow paralyzed people to walk. They have also created an ingenious passive, unpowered exoskeleton system that shipyard workers can use.
This engineering marvel lets workers heft heavy tools such as industrial grinders and rivet guns above their heads all day without bearing any of the load themselves. This means that the workforce is more productive and there are fewer health problems related to overwork or having to lift heavy stuff all day with fragile human muscles.
Let’s Suit Up
That’s enough about the theory behind exoskeletons. Let’s look at some real-life examples that already exist and already work. I’m going to be highlighting a mix of both military and civilian systems. Often you’ll find that these products are actually both, with a few variations in their specific features.
The Sarcos Solution
One of the most famous current exoskeleton projects must be by Sarcos, which is owned by Raytheon. Raytheon is, of course, a US military contractor and their technology is aimed mainly at military needs. Their latest published system is the Guardian XO. It’s still under development and is called the XOS 2 in its military form.
It’s been a long time since this system was first shown to us, all the way back in 2010. Nothing new has been announced since then, but you can be sure that this is not a project that the US military or Sarcos itself is likely to leave behind. Despite being a relatively old platform, the Guardian XO is still a very impressive piece of technology. It’s closer to the sci-fi idea of a military exoskeleton than anything else we’ve seen so far. The operator wears the XO like a suit and it mimics every motion perfectly, while enabling the user to lift very heavy weights without fatigue.
This system can let the user lift up to 200 pounds, which may not sound like much, but the average human could probably lift that load unaided perhaps once or twice. With the help of an XO suit, someone could lift and place that sort of load all day long and feel no more tired than if they were loading foam bricks.
The combat variant will at first only be the lower half of the suit, to allow soldiers to carry their gear with little or no fatigue setting in. However, they have shown mockups of something like the XO covered in armor plating, which you have to admit is pretty darn cool. Here is a video demonstrating the abilities of the XO.
An important thing to note is that throughout the generations of this technology the main idea has been not to make them much stronger, but to make them more power efficient. Since these suits will be most useful if they don’t need to be tethered to a power source, I’ll discuss that problem in more detail a little later.
Don’t you just love backronyms? You know there is no way that this suit from Lockheed Martin just happened to work out to something like “HULC”. In any case, it’s probably the closest competitor to the XOS 2 that the US military is currently considering.
“HULC” is short for “Human Universal Load Carrier”. It allows soldiers who are on foot to carry as much as 200 pounds without feeling the weight themselves or affecting their mobility in any significant way. This is important because there are many places where even military ATVs or other wheeled vehicles can’t go. The HULC provides a way for soldiers to get their equipment into place. It also means they can move at speed. The HULC can cruise at 11 kph or hit 16 kph for short intervals. To give you some perspective, elite unloaded marathon runners can average about 19 kph. So carrying that sort of load at these speeds is an incredible feat.
The way that these frames are designed, the actual weight of the load is carried through the frame of the skeleton and onto the shoes of the robot itself. In other words, none of the weight is actually felt by the body of the soldier. At 4 kph, the HULC can range 20 kilometers on level terrain. This means that you could drop soldiers 10 kilometers from a target zone and have them proceed under load there and back without any load fatigue, all in less than five hours. It’s no wonder the military is interested in these machines.
These are also early-generation systems, with the numbers only improving as time goes on. Check the HULC out in this video:
The HAL 5 Exoskeleton
If you are going to name your new hi-tech robotic systems after something, why would you choose to name it after a dystopian film about evil robots and computers? Well, whatever the reason, Cyberdyne (really?) has created the HAL or “Hybrid Assistive Limb” exoskeleton.
The HAL was first produced in prototype form all the way back in 1997, with the project itself having started in 1992. The last version was released in 2012 and it’s actually something that you can buy. At between $14,000 and $19,000, you could almost call it affordable.
It’s not just a lower-body suit, either. This is a full-body powered exoskeleton that Cyberdyne is pushing for a variety of uses. The first one is for people who are weak or disabled in some way. With a HAL they can regain strength and posture. Even if a person cannot move their legs to trigger the voluntary control system, the HAL 5 has an autonomous walking mode that will do the work for you. It’s not as good, but it’s better than nothing.
The suit is also aimed at more business-like uses, such as in construction or helping medical personnel lift patients or do other strenuous activities safely and easily. Plus I also have to say that of all the exoskeletons I’ve seen, the HAL looks the part the most. It’s clearly a commercial product with the iPhone generation in mind. This is, after all, the fifth iteration of the suit, so they’ve had time to work on the looks as well.
It’s entirely possible to use just the lower part of the HAL 5. This turns it into something that can help people carry heavier loads than usual or help people with pre-existing back and mobility problems to move around more easily.
The HAL is, to my mind, the true first generation of consumer exoskeletons, and one day we may all make use of biofeedback systems such as this to do things like hike up the side of a mountain or tackle the yardwork – at least until robots get good enough to take over from us completely.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the makers of powered exoskeletons is providing the source of that power. In fictional films such as Iron Man, there’s usually a hypothetical power source. Tony Stark has his “Arc Reactor” that allows the storytellers to hand-wave away energy issues. In the real world, most high-tech exoskeletons, such as the Sarcos system mentioned above, are hooked up to umbilical cords that run from the electric grid.
The power problems that plague exoskeletons are the same that plague the latest generation of robotics as a whole. Boston Dynamics, for example, started off their untethered robots with noisy internal combustion engines onboard. This at least allowed them to perfect the actual robots, but obviously a robot that sounds like a raging motocross bike all the time isn’t that useful – especially if you want it to accompany soldiers on foot into enemy territory. Their latest robots have become battery powered, but at the cost of runtime and refueling.
Our best battery technology still doesn’t provide anywhere near the energy density of fossil fuels, but it’s constantly being improved. There is also the possibility of using solar power, but solar power cells need to become a lot more efficient if they ever hope to be practical for these energy-hungry types of robotic platforms.
A more immediate and practical solution is the use of hydrogen fuel cells, which are very energy dense and can be refueled quickly, if you have a hydrogen fuel distribution system similar to our gas stations today. Fuel cell technology still needs a lot of development, but it’s already possible to get laptops and smartphones powered by fuel cells. The technology is not ready for mainstream use; on the other hand, flying robot drones could really benefit from hydrogen fuel cells.
Whatever future power source does end up solving the issue, today one of the main roadblocks to making exoskeletons untethered and practical is getting power to them.
Powered exoskeletons are a great way to ease humanity into the idea of augmenting their own bodies. Once you have feasible exoskeletons, it’s not such a leap to move toward direct brain interfaces, or integrating strength and speed augmentation more closely with the capabilities of our own bodies. It seems clear that we’ll see military and industrial uses first, but we already have consumer exoskeletons, both powered and passive, that have plenty of potential to make the lives of physically disabled people better.
Those of us who are able-bodied may find plenty of uses for compact exoskeletons. Even if you are just someone who has to be on their feet all day in a store or who carries stuff around a lot as part of your job, an exoskeleton can take the physical strain off you, preserving your joints and health for a longer and healthier life. The idea is, of course, not to make people exercise less than they already do, but to relieve the types of physical constraints that over months and years do us more harm than good.
Exoskeletons are also a fantastic source of information for the people whose job it is to develop bipedal robots. Since an exoskeleton is essentially a bipedal robot that you wear, it provides a way to learn the minute details of how humans walk and generally move about. Once a significant number of people are using them across all walks of life, there will be a wealth of data that can be used to teach autonomous robots how to move their bodies.
While we won’t be flying around in Iron Man suits any time soon (if ever), powered exoskeletons will also take us to places we now find difficult to be. Exploration of other worlds such as Mars will certainly be much easier with the help of a powered exoskeleton spacesuit. The same goes for other extreme environments as well.
Whatever the future of exoskeleton technology is, all I know is that I can’t wait for an Iron Man suit of my own.