The mechanical body extensions are about to make our lives much easier
Imagine this: A lone soldier stands guard outside a door in Iraq. “Affirmative!” he bellows through the metal structure and his huge fist pounds against the metal door, cracking it open. Despite his heavy armor, he pounces forward, only to be engulfed in a hail of bullets. Rather than fleeing, the soldier stands erect as bullets ricochet harmlessly off his body. Exoskeletons were always a thing of science fiction and futuristic action flicks. The gap between fantasy and reality, however, is shrinking.
Exoskeletons, which are essentially metal frames equipped with motorized “muscles” that increase the wearer’s strength well beyond that of average humans, have existed as an idea since the late 1800s. Nicholas Yagn of St. Petersburg, Russia, patented the first exoskeleton-like platform for walking, running, and jumping on January 28, 1890. Seventy-four years later, in a Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, Niel J. Mizen developed an exoskeleton known as “The Man Amplifier,” which marked the transition of exoskeletons from concept to practice. Around 1965, General Electric (in the United States) began work on the “Hardiman,” a large full-body exoskeleton designed to increase a user’s strength and enable them to lift heavy items. These, however, were just rough prototypes that were clumsy, difficult to take off or run, and costly, rendering the invention unfit for use by industry or the general public.
But with leaps in technology, the possibility of fully functioning exosuits started making the rounds again. Currently, perhaps a few hundred commercial and experimental exosuits are already in use around the world. They range from powered exoskeletons, wearable robotics, passive exosuits, and “powered clothing,” and they’re changing lives in surprising ways.
They say wars drive technological advancements. And when it comes to exosuits, the military application is a clear no-brainer. Governments pour in hundreds of millions when you present them with the prospect of a possible supersoldier. From Russia to America, China, and even India, everyone wants a piece of that metallic pie. In 2018, Russia revealed that the weapons maker TsNiiTochMash was developing a new-age combat suit with a “powered exoskeleton” at the University of Science and Technology in Moscow called the Ratnik 3. The exoskeleton suit includes body armor, optical, communication, and navigation devices, as well as life support and power supply systems. TsNiiTochMash has reportedly delivered 300,000 of its next-generation combat system to the Russian army already. Ratnik’s key distinguishing attribute, according to the company, is its ability to adapt the fighting outfit to a serviceman’s physical characteristics and assigned combat tasks. Aside from the standard equipment, the commander’s version as well as outfits for snipers, machine gunners, and fighting vehicle crews have been made.
The United States, like Russia, was working on its own exoskeleton program known as TALOS. The outfit was supposed to be a futuristic infantry battle suit with bulletproof armor and the ability to mount weapons and track vital signs. Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit or TALOS was the hottest topic in defense circles—until, in 2019, the project was abruptly shut down.
That, however, hasn’t stopped private enterprises from entering the space with the support of the government. The biggest defense firm in the world, Lockheed Martin, has been working on a lower-body exoskeleton suit—the Onyx. It’s essentially a motorized, robotic knee brace. It doesn’t help soldiers leap tall buildings, dodge bullets, or bear massive video game-style guns. It does, however, take enough weight off the wearer’s knees, which easily wear out while scaling mountain sides or urban stairwells.
For decades, full-body armored exoskeletons have been a fantasy of military science fiction and superhero stories, but even partial systems like ONYX have taken a long time to create. This is due to two factors: It’s difficult to design a power source that’s light and lightweight enough to support you rather than hinder you, and it’s much more difficult to create a mechanical system that moves naturally with your body and saves you energy rather than draining you.
However, it seems that Sarcos Defense has been able to find an agreeable middle ground. Their wearable robotic exoskeleton evokes memories of Ellen Ripley’s power-loader suit from the film “Aliens.” And they’ve recently reported that the US Marine Corps Logistics Innovation Office has awarded them a contract to deliver an Alpha version of the Guardian XO exoskeleton. The full-body robotic exoskeleton enables one person to do the work of four to ten people, performing hours of physical labor, such as lifting and moving up to 200 pounds of gear for eight hours straight. Sarcos Defense is led by former US military officers who are well-qualified to provide solutions that meet the modern military’s needs.
Healthcare and Industrial Uses
Wearable robots are being used to assist people with developmental conditions and physical disabilities in clinical environments, which is one of the most exciting applications for them. A therapy robot, for example, may assist a patient with paraplegia caused by a complete or partial spinal cord injury in relearning to walk. They can also be used to help people who have had a stroke recover their original gait and develop their balance and posture by gait training. They can also aid in the recovery of patients who have sustained traumatic brain injuries.
One of the major players in this area, Ekso Bionics, recently received FDA approval for a new exoskeleton that would help stroke and spinal cord injury patients get back on their feet faster. Their product completely supports the spine and lower extremities while also assisting the patient in maintaining proper posture. SuitX is another company that’s aiming at bettering lives with its own medical exoskeleton called PheoniX, which has also been approved by the FDA. This is a motorized, lower-body framework that enables people with severe mobility issues to rise up from their wheelchairs and walk.
Exoskeletons have many applications in industrial settings as well, especially for construction and manufacturing. They’re already being experimented with, in a variety of industries, to assist employees in performing tasks in a safer, more effective way. Staff can carry heavier loads, perform routine overhead activities, and hold challenging positions with less fatigue and discomfort thanks to upper body exoskeletons. Labor unions, human resources agencies, and government regulators are all concerned about injuries related to lifting and transporting heavy loads in the workspace. Workload reduction, ergonomic improvements, and reduced time spent carrying large objects have all been regarded as band-aid solutions, as worker injury still exists. Exoskeletons could just be the answer.
Currently, a number of factors, including battery power, limited range of motion, and cost, are preventing widespread adoption of exoskeleton technology. However, my prediction is that once the solid-state battery tech arrives in the market as a commercially viable option, that’s when we’ll be able to see the real potential of the mech suits. Exosuits can one day be mass-produced personal mobility devices for everyone: a chic, high-tech wearable that increases general physical well-being and serves as a status symbol. Until then, however, we’re stuck in our boring flesh suits.