Friday, December 13, 2013

The Amazing World of Exoskeleton Technology

Science Fiction: The Mother of Invention

In 1898, and again in its 1938 radio adaptation, H.G. Wells' The War of The Worlds captivated audiences with its tale of Martian invasion. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Buck Rogers space exploration stories filled comic book pages, pulp magazines, movie theaters and radio airwaves. Moviegoers in the early '50s devoured films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Destination Moon. In 1953, Abbot and Costello went to Mars. In 1957, the Soviets sent Sputnik I into space. It was the starter's pistol to the Space Race and the onset of a new technological revolution. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and, in 1969, television sets that had earlier shown Lost in Space and Star Trek showed Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

A 1928 issue of the Amazing Stories comic book featured a hero zipping around in a jet pack, a fictional technology reprised often in popular culture, including the 1954 film The Rocket Man. A decade later, a real jet pack took flight at the California State Fair.

In 2000, Honda created ASIMO, a humanoid robot whose name pays homage to sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, the man who coined the word "robotics."

Captain Kirk's handheld communicator inspired the invention of the cell phone.

Art and fiction populate our imaginations, inspiring new technologies. So, the question now is, in humanity's ongoing effort to make reality and fantasy overlap, who's going to build the first real Iron Man suit?

Iron Man and the Bionic Woman: Technology to Enhance the Human Body

So far, the closest real-life analogs to the Iron Man suit are powered exoskeletons -- wearable machines consisting of an outer framework that uses motors or hydraulics to deliver added energy to the body's movements. In recent years, several exoskeleton variations have emerged for a variety of purposes. The greatest efforts seem to be for medical and military applications, but there are also exoskeletons whose purpose is less specialized. All are made to enhance the human body, whether that means enabling a paraplegic to walk away from his wheelchair, a soldier to carry heavy supplies for miles without getting tired, a rescue worker to lift heavy debris, or an action hero to fight aliens in space.

Medical exoskeletons
Ekso Bionics
Argo Medical Technologies
Rex BionicsIn the 1970s TV series The Bionic Woman, tennis pro Jaime Sommers is saved by surgically implanted bionics after a near-fatal skydiving accident. Although medical exoskeletons neither require a scalpel nor allow the wearer to run at 60 miles per hour, they can give those who have suffered paralyzing injury the ability to walk again. While the technology is not yet perfect, devices like Argo Medical Technologies' ReWalk, Rex Bionics' Rex, and Ekso Bionics' Ekso (formerly Berkley Bionics eLEGS) have already had some success helping people who had previously been restricted to wheelchairs to walk.

Each exoskeleton has its limitations. The Ekso and ReWalk both require the wearer to use crutches, and the Rex is controlled using a joystick not unlike a motorized wheelchair. Merely the sensation of being upright and at eye level with others, however, can make a profound impact on the wearer's physical and emotional well-being.

Honda's Walking Assist device has recently begun clinical trials
Not every strength and mobility issue is due to paralysis. For those who do not necessarily require wheelchairs, but nevertheless suffer from limited or deteriorating mobility, there are some less intensive bionic solutions in the works. By far the smallest and sleekest exoskeletal mobility booster is Honda's Walking Assist device. It is not a wheelchair replacement, but rather a rehabilitation tool for those with limited mobility. The device, which uses a combination of hip sensors and motors to improve stride, has recently begun clinical trials on stroke survivors, 80 percent of whom have difficulty walking.

I get by with a little help from my bionic exoskeleton

The Titan Arm is being developed by students at the University of PennsylvaniaFocusing on the upper body, students at the University of Pennsylvania are currently developing the Titan Arm, a bionic arm to be used both therapeutically and as a strength augmenter to assist in labor and rescue missions. While most powered exoskeletons are bulky and expensive, Their goal is to develop an ergonomic and affordable device.

Perhaps the most technologically advanced exoskeleton is Cyberdyne's HAL 5 (Hybrid Assistive Limb) "robot suit." By detecting faint biosignals on the surface of the wearer's skin, this "cyborg-type robot" is able to pick up on instructions the brain sends the muscles, allowing it to move based on the wearer's intentions rather than moving in response to muscle activity.

Cyberdyne HAL 5Cyberdyne, as you may have noticed, derives its name from the fictional tech corporation in the Terminator franchise and, like Honda's ASIMO, the robot suit's name makes a sci-fi reference, alluding to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Storm-trooper white with glowing blue rings at the joints, HAL 5 looks like something out of a science fiction movie.

Lockheed Martin HULCRB3D HerculeHAL 5's function, like that of the Titan Arm, is not as specialized as powered exoskeletons that are strictly medical. Configured for everyday activities and motions, like standing up, sitting down, walking and climbing stairs, as well as heavy lifting and labor, its uses are potentially broad and yet to be fully seen.

Exoskeletons for badasses

If the previously mentioned powered exoskeletons were the Bionic Woman (or, for that matter, the Six Million Dollar Man) -- made to compensate for those who may otherwise be at a physical disadvantage -- The following are Iron Man. This is where AC/DC starts playing. These are exoskeletons built for intense action.
Raytheon XO 2
The technology behind Lockheed Martin's Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC derives from the Ekso robotic legs. The (incredible) HULC, however, adapted for military use, applies the technology completely differently. Using and onboard microcomputer to correlate its movements with the wearer, it's flexible enough for the wearer to squat and crawl, and powerful enough to lift 200 pounds effortlessly. Lockheed Martin also plans to design similar exoskeletons for industrial use as well as mission-specific operations.

Activelink Power Loader LightCommissioned by the French Directorate General of Armaments, the RB3D Hercule, which looks a bit like a headless android riding piggyback, is a light-weight, lithium-ion battery-powered "collaborative robot." It has been designed to work intuitively, requiring no special training to use. Like the HULC, it is designed to enhance the wearer's endurance and assist with heavy lifting. It can go for 12.5 miles on a single charge, and while it's a bit bulkier than the HULC, it has a slightly better carrying capacity (about 220 lbs). In addition to military operations, the Hercule may prove useful in fire fighting, construction, logistics, and medical applications.

Other than the HULC, the only exoskeleton under development for the US military is Raytheon's second-generation XOS 2. In some ways, it's one of the more impressive robot suits out there. In demonstrations, soldiers have used it to punch through solid wooden blocks. With an actual weight to perceived weight ratio of 17:1, a 100 lbs. crate of supplies would feel like less than 6 lbs., essentially like carrying an empty box. Unfortunately, the XOS 2 currently needs to be tethered to a power source to work. An untethered version is expected to be fully operational by the year 2020.

Not to be left behind, Panasonic, under their affiliate company Activelink, is currently developing the Power Loader Light, a real-life version of the Power Loader from the movie Aliens. Like its movie counterpart, it is designed for industrial and logistics work. Unfortunately, Activelink has abandoned the massive robotic arms of their earlier prototype. In its current form, it seems unlikely that the Power Loader could be used to defeat space monsters, but who knows what the future holds?

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