Some of the most iconic exoskeletons in the media include the Iron Man MK III suit, the suits used by the characters in the Halo games (like the MJOLNIR Mark V), the Caterpillar Power Loader in Aliens, and the suits used by the soldiers in the movie ‘The Edge of Tomorrow’. These suits are robotic enhancements that are worn by the characters in the movies giving them extraordinary abilities and special powers to take on the supervillains of the world. All of these suits are examples of exoskeletons in fiction that are well known all around the world. We might not be close to recreating an entire Iron Man exoskeleton suit for soldiers just yet, but we are making breakthroughs in the field of exoskeletons.
What is an exoskeleton?
‘Exoskeleton’ and ‘endoskeleton’ are terms that you might have learned in science class. Exoskeleton is a Greek word that means ‘outer skeleton’, since the prefix ‘exo’ means ‘outside’. This term is used to name the outer layer that protects a living thing. For example, animals like shellfish or turtles have an exoskeleton, because of the hard shells on the exterior of their bodies. On the other hand, endoskeleton refers to the skeleton on the inside of an organism’s body. For example, humans and dogs have endoskeletons since their skeleton is on the inside of their bodies.
Powered exoskeletons are suits and armors that are wearable by the user. They are powered by electric motors, pneumatics, hydraulics, computers, and other technologies to support the human body and help provide mobility to body functions that have been become defective or disabled. People have been wearing armor for thousands of years, but the concept of mechanical, automated armor that the user could wear has always intrigued people. Let’s take a look at the science behind these awesome suits and discover when, why, and how they have been created and used in the real world.
How did the concept start?
It all began with the military. In 1961, two years before Iron Man was created by Marvel, the Pentagon started to show interest in the concept of actual wearable robots to help soldiers. They were interested in the concept of a “Servo soldier” that could enable the user to “be able to run faster and lift heavy objects, and which would be immune to germ warfare, poison gas and even heat and radiation from nuclear blasts" (source linked below).
The Pentagon partnered with many private companies to build a suit. Initial progress was slow. Finding portable energy supplies, making wearable suits that were not too bulky and ability to control the movements of the suits seemed daunting and impractical. As technology advanced and research continued, in 2000s, the creation of exoskeleton picked up some speed when DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency run by the Pentagon to work on cutting-edge technology), came up with a $75 million-dollar program called ‘Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation’. This program was created solely to speed things along in the field of exoskeletons. They idea was to create a machine that would handle big, heavy weapons that normally require two people to operate, allow a soldier to carry hundreds of pounds of gear tirelessly for several days, and even carry wounded soldiers off the battlefield on the suit’s back. What was even more ambitious about the goal was that they wanted the suit to be bulletproof and be able to jump extremely high. We usually only see these abilities in suits in science fiction movies and books, but DARPA was set on bringing this technology to reality. A lot of scientists dismissed the project offhand, saying that it was impossible to create such a suit. Luckily, many researchers were willing to think big and happily joined the program and the quest to create an ultimate exoskeleton suit.
Concept to prototype
Many companies came up with models of exoskeleton including a company called Sarcos, led by robot-maker Steve Jacobsen, who came up with a way for the exoskeleton to move like a human.
Sensors on the suit would detect the user’s muscle contractions. These contractions would then operate a series of valves that would regulate the flow of hydraulic fluid under high-pressure to the joints of the suit. Then, the cylinders and their attached cables that were connected to the joints would be moved by the joints, simulating the tendons that attach the muscles in a human’s body. The result of this new technology was a prototype called the XOS. XOS was the device that was closest to the military’s version, and the project continued to the development stage. The negative aspect was the suit had to stay connected to power supply for energy to be supplied to operate the suit.
Other companies also worked on improving technology that could be used in exoskeletons and some of the achievements are as follows:
Berkeley Bionics - created a design that reduced the amount of energy the artificial limbs required, allowing the suit to operate for 20 hours without recharging. So far, only prototypes have been designed. It hasn’t been put to use in the field yet.
Cyberdyne, a Japanese company - created the Robot Suit HAL. This concept was even more ingenious than the others, since it didn’t use the human’s muscle contractions to move the artificial limbs. Instead, they included sensors that picked up the electrical messages sent by the user’s brain. A human body moves because of signals sent from the person’s brain. They only have to think about what they want to do and the suit will do it for them. According to businessinsider.com, “The suit was used by relief workers during efforts to clean up the partial meltdown of Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, because the suit could allow workers to wear more protective gear and work longer shifts without tiring as quickly.”
As technology advances, companies will come up with lighter, flexible, energy efficient suits that can be worn by soldiers in the field and help them carry loads easily without injuring their joints.
Reaching the common man
Though it started as a military requirement, thanks to new and emerging technologies in the area of wearable clothing, machine learning and artificial intelligence the concept of real-life exoskeletons/ bionic exoskeletons or soft exoskeletons to improve people’s lives is becoming even closer to reality.
Exoskeletons are currently being designed for people who are paralyzed from the waist down or are confined to a wheelchair because of severe mobility issues. These exoskeletons are changing people’s lives by allowing them to live and move normally. However they are not easily accessible to ordinary people as they are very expensive. One suit, The Phoenix, costs around $30,000 and weighs only 27 pounds. Other companies sell their suits for $80,000 and they weigh more than 44 pounds. However as more and more companies and non-profits take the initiative to design the suits and make them accessible to the consumers, we might just see these suits come to the affordable market. As the market for exoskeletons grows new ways of using these suits for other purposes may emerge and pave the way for more innovations that make the impossible seems possible every day!
So, there you have it! The fiction of exoskeletons is slowly becoming a reality. They are currently helping people walk and move again, and they are revolutionizing our military capabilities. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more articles!