Robots have been in the headlines a lot recently, with some very cool looking prototypes popping up in Kickstarter campaigns and tech blogs.
A few months ago the internet was buzzing about a mysterious 13-foot tall behemoth of a mech-suit-walker that was being designed in Korea. The legitimacy of that story and a lot of similar projects is questionable, but robot suits are a real thing now and they are starting to play a role in all kinds of industries from freight handling to heavy construction.
From Sci-Fi to Reality
When robots first started appearing back in the 1950’s, a lot of people worried that they would make human workers redundant by the year 2000. That didn’t happen of course. Despite all the excitement caused by science fiction movies like Terminator, Iron Man and Star Wars, the actual pace of robot evolution has fallen a bit short of 1950’s fantasies.
Robots are stronger than us but they just don’t have enough smarts yet. They’re great for doing repetitive jobs, but even now in 2017, they can’t compete with humans when it comes to figuring things out and solving problems on the go. Researchers have been grappling with this problem for decades; how can we combine the strength and endurance of a robot with the intelligence and intuition of a human? One answer to that question is an exoskeleton.
What is an Exoskeleton?
Hearing the word ‘exoskeleton’, most of us think of Hollywood movies like ‘Avatar’ or ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, but they aren’t science fiction anymore—they are real-life industrial tools.
An exoskeleton is basically a mechanical suit that supports the wearer and augments their strength and endurance. It behaves a lot like a robot mechanically, but it is fully controlled by the wearer’s movements. An exoskeleton detects movement of the user’s limbs and follows them in real time. The idea is that the person wearing the exoskeleton will be able to lift heavy loads more easily and because the suit is assisting them they will be able to work longer without getting fatigued or injured.
General Electric started building exoskeleton prototypes with the US military back in the 1960’s. The mechanical engineering of the earliest exoskeletons was pretty successful but because computer technology was so primitive at the time the control systems didn’t work very well.
Using 1960’s computers they couldn’t get the suits to work smoothly with the operators. General Electric eventually shelved their work on early prototypes because the suits were jerky and unpredictable. It was too dangerous to strap the exoskeletons onto a person in case it malfunctioned and pulled their arms off.
For decades robot-human hybrids seemed like nothing but a science fiction fantasy, but in the mid-2000’s the exponential improvement of computer tech finally made powered exoskeletons a reality.
Although a lot of the research and development of exoskeleton technology has been driven by military programs, they are no longer viewed solely as military technology. Much like drones, which also began primarily as military tech but have since been re-developed and recently lauded as “the future of farming“, other industries have now seen the incredible potential of mechanically augmented human strength in the workplace. So a lot of innovation has resulted from industrial research—finding ways to use exoskeletons to increase productivity in areas like manufacturing, construction and freight logistics.
It might sound far-fetched now, but in a few years, factory workers and builders might be wearing exoskeletons every day at work. They’re still not mainstream technology, but there are already a few companies making and selling exoskeletons for commercial use. And if you have a few thousand dollars lying around, you can buy a robot suit of your own right now.
The ‘Suit-X Max’ is designed to be highly versatile, so it can be used in a wide range of different tasks and environments. Suit-X has conducted extensive testing of the Max in a wide range of industries like manufacturing, baggage handling and construction.
The technology powering this exoskeleton was conceived at The University of California, Berkeley and ‘Suit-X’ has won several major awards for their design.
The Max system is modular, with separate integrated components to support the wearer’s back, shoulders and legs. Suit-X has produced a suit that is light and comfortable to wear, with minimal bulk. The suit moves intuitively with the wearer, so they have full ranges of motion, whether they are walking, kneeling or climbing a ladder. You can even jump in a car and drive without taking this rig off. That’s pretty handy if you’re a busy tradesman on the go.
Suit-X claim that their exoskeleton reduces the amount of energy required to perform tasks by up to 60%. Because the system is fully modular you can wear one or more of the components – shoulders, legs or back – and remove the parts you don’t need for a given job. You can add a load bearing gimbal arm that attaches to the suit’s harness as well, to make tool handling easier and lighter.
The RRP on the separate Suit-X units ranges between US$3,000 and US$5,000. For a complete exoskeleton including ‘Back-X’, ‘Shoulder-X’ and ‘Leg-X’, you are looking at spending US$11,000.
If you’re on a budget the modules are sold separately, so you can buy them and assemble them into the suit one at a time.
Atoun Model A
The Japanese company Atoun have built a simple exoskeleton that is designed to assist with repetitive lifting tasks. Atoun say that their mission is to make lifting and packing work safe and sustainable, even for people of smaller build and physical strength.
Japanese industry is facing a bit of a labour supply problem. The country’s ageing population has resulted in a shortage of physically fit factory workers and labourers. Atoun is seeking to solve that problem with their affordable exoskeleton, the ‘Model A’.
The design of the Model A exoskeleton is focussed on simplicity and affordability. The wearer can quickly and easily put the device on like a backpack. It isn’t rated for heavy loads but supports and enhances the strength of the operator, so they can work for longer without getting exhausted or injured.
The suit’s simple structure is set up for easy maintenance and repair. It’s not a highly sophisticated or powerful device but the lightweight batteries will power it for 8 hours of non-stop use. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that the Model A weighs less than 7 kilograms. The minimal weight is a big plus for usability, but also allows Atoun to distribute the suits relatively cheaply, keeping retail prices down. Affordability is a big challenge to makers of exoskeletons. One of the main focusses of new products is achieving price points that make them accessible to the mass market.
If you have a few thousand boxes to move or run a hardware warehouse, the Model A might be a good bit of kit to have around. For the style conscious, it is available in a range of different colours too.
Lockheed Martin Fortis
Here’s an exoskeleton suit that looks a bit more like the macho machines we know from movies. Lockheed Martin are one of the pioneers of the exoskeleton industry. They have been making power-assist systems for military application for some time. Now the company have started to bring their expertise to bear on the industrial arena, with very credible results.
The main emphasis of the ‘Fortis’ exoskeleton system is on support and tool handling. In industries like construction and boat building, a lot of the power tools workers use are extremely heavy and unwieldy. Repetitive strain injuries and fatigue are a huge problem and Lockheed Martin set out to solve those problems with Fortis.
The suit has quite a minimal profile but a lot of rigidity when it is under strain. The operator can move naturally while wearing it because the suit moves with them through a full range of motion but it responds automatically to increased load or vibration to minimise strain on the operator.
Like the Suit-X Max, the Fortis exoskeleton has a detachable gimbal arm. The gimbal arm on the Fortis system can be fitted with customised tool attachments, a bit like the power couplings on a tractor. That means you can basically turn yourself into a giant power tool with legs. Now we’re in Avatar territory.
Lockheed Martin’s pedigree as a manufacturer of military equipment has made them a prestige player in the emerging exoskeleton market.
It’s hard to get solid price data on Lockheed Martin’s products but they are clearly not trying to get into the retail market—at least for the time being. If you want to set yourself up with one one of their rigs you will probably need to bulk order a few dozen and mortgage your house.
Hyundai, the car manufacturer are currently developing a really cool looking new exoskeleton suit. There’s not much information about it available yet, but what we do know is that the new Hyundai exoskeleton will be for heavy industrial use and will offer unprecedented power to operators.
The specs are still unknown, but Hyundai released a handful of photos from their R&D labs last year that showed a shiny blue full body suit that looks more like a wearable robot than anything currently available in the commercial market.
The new Hyundai exoskeleton could become available this year, so start saving your pocket money.