Robot Exoskeletons Are More Than Military Iron Man Suits

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A robot exoskeleton chilling until it's time to augment a flimsy human body. Ekso Bionics

Of course the military wants an Iron Man suit.

The current cutting edge is the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, known as TALOS. Spearheaded by the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the TALOS suit currently exists as a fragmented research project spread across numerous universities and private research labs. A successful TALOS exoskeleton would be bulletproof, studded with weapons, capable of monitoring vitals, able to enhance senses and provide superhuman strength. But when iDigitalTimes caught a demo from one TALOS contractor, Ekso Bionics of Berkeley, the real surprise was that technological leaps in the exoskeleton field are far more than military boondoggles, with real world exoskeletons improving human lives far outside of the pervasive Iron Man headlines.

Some of the most tangible recent innovations in human augmentation and exoskeletons have been more about helping people walk again than creating super soldiers. While much of Ekso’s military research is conducted on behalf of far-flung future soldiers, Ekso has an exoskeleton out in the field right now.

Brad Roan, mechanical design engineer for Ekso Bionics, described the current state of the art in robot exoskeletons as all about “rehabilitative devices.”

Their main product is a “wearable bionic suit which enables individuals with any amount of lower extremity weakness to stand up and walk over ground with a natural, full weight bearing, reciprocal gait.”

The suit itself is sparse, mostly consisting of straps with cylinders along the side that provide motor assist to people working to rebuild muscle.

The product page for the Ekso Bionic suit describes the main technology that goes into the walking-assist exoskeleton.

“Walking is achieved by the user’s weight shifts to activate sensors in the device which initiate steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs, replacing deficient neuromuscular function.”

But despite Roan’s technical background, he kept the focus on the heartening reality that exoskeletons are providing in real-world scenarios right now. “It gets people up and walking.”

Ekso Bionic Suit At Work

“We’re all about augmenting human strength and endurance," Ekso Bionics CEO Nathan Harding said in an interview with Forbes. "To do that you have to wrap a robot around a person.”

But while Harding promises that we’ll “start seeing people running faster, jumping higher,” it’s the ways in which robot exoskeletons can fundamentally alter medical disabilities that’s likely to have the most potent real world effects.

As Roan demoed the Ekso bionic suit and its medical uses, mechanical technician Ed Howell strapped himself into an exoskeleton designed for construction work. Roan took a moment to point out the heavy power tool strapped to the arm.

“That’s a 40 pound tool. All the load of that is transferred through the suit," he said. "You can work for hours with heavy equipment.”

Sure, Iron Man gets all the headlines, but our first encounters with robot exoskeletons are likely to be in more mundane realms.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Howell said. 

He then strode away to demo the suit’s utility to waiting rescue workers.

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