How robotics can turn you into a superhuman
Have you ever heard of ironman? The man who built his own superhero suit? Well, what if I tell you similar suits exist? The development of mechanical suits already started in 1965 and soon after this happened, the first suits appeared on the market. They can either support your lower body, upper body or your full body. They arrive in many forms and cover many different functions, like supporting injured people or enhance the strength of soldiers. The most recent release of a mechanical full body suit was beginning this year, named Sarcos Guardian XO, and enabled the operator (human inside the suit) to lift up to 100kg of goods.
These mechanical suits are called exoskeletons, which might sound familiar as they can also refer to the outer shell of some animals, like crabs and grasshoppers. Whereas we have our bones inside our body, those animals only have a hard armor. This armor supports their boneless body and protects it against the outside world. Just like with animals, mechanical exoskeletons are also developed to support and protect our bodies.
Exoskeletons are built to fit our body perfectly. This can, for example, be done by 3D-printing. In this case, the body of the operator will be copied and the outer frame of the exoskeleton can be build around this copy. This means the exoskeleton is personalized and will only fit that particular person. The outer frame itself will be responsible for the support and is often made from a hard material, like iron.
Besides fitting the outer frame, many other aspects should be thought about when building an exoskeleton. Not only should the exoskeleton be able to fulfill its purpose, it should also be comfortable, maintain its balance and move flexibly. To be able to this, engineers work closely together with the operator. MARCH is a lower body exoskeleton built by a team of students from Delft. According to them, it is very important to listen to the operator’s wishes. This way they understand what is needed from the operator’s perspective (comfort and manageability), which enables them to improve the exoskeleton even further. MARCH is not commercially available yet, however the team is working on a new version every year and hoping to introduce MARCH into the medical world in the near future.
Just as MARCH, exoskeletons were originally built for medical purposes, especially for people with spinal injuries. These people are often not able to use their legs anymore. The exoskeleton, therefore, was meant to be able to support them and enable them to move without a wheelchair. REX, from Rex Bionics, was the first commercial exoskeleton, which could make that happen. REX is a lower body exoskeleton, which can be controlled with a built-in joystick combined with a small computer screen. With the screen you can choose a movement, like walking, standing up or sitting down. The joystick can be used to choose the direction you want to move in, forwards, sideways or backwards. Watch this clip to get a better image of how REX works! https://youtu.be/t2Q4UrxmwYE
Nowadays, exoskeletons are not only used for medical purposes. They are, for example, used in the army where they also cover, mostly, the lower body. In this case it is often a simpler version and thus less robust. The main reason for this is the fact that it should increase the endurance and strength of the user, but the user does not fully depend on it when it comes to his or her own ability to move. The army exoskeleton, controlled with a small computer strapped on the soldier’s waist, enables them to walk longer distances and carry heavier goods preventing their muscles from getting sore or injured.
Some upper body exoskeletons also function to relieve pressure from the user’s muscles. They are mostly used in working fields where heavy lifting is a mandatory daily task, like the car industry. The upper body exoskeleton can increase strength enabling the user to lift heavier goods and at the same time relieve the pressure from their own muscles. This way the user can perform the same task, if not heavier, for a longer period of time. Thereby, it also prevents injury due to overload.
The latest released exoskeleton, Sarcos Guardian XO, is a mechanical full body suit, which is built for the lifting industry as well. It is a personalized suit, therefore it only fits one person. The exoskeleton is controlled through a panel on your wrist, which can be used to start the robot and decide which mode it should be in, for example heavy or light lifting. It is equipped with a new technology, which enables the exoskeleton frame to mimic your movement. In this case, the operator is only strapped in at the waist and feet. The hands of the operator can either grab the robotic arms, control the panel or freely move in its surrounding. If you want to see how the Sarcos Guardian XO works, watch this clip: https://youtu.be/W5P4i-aytws
The advantage of having a full body suit compared to an upper body suit is the fact that it can relieve the pressure from muscles, both in your legs, arms and in your back. Thereby, it can be more robust as it can stand on its own and so the weight of the suit does not have to be carried by the user. Unfortunately, this suit is not for sale and can only be rented with an operator in it.
Exoskeletons may be for sale for everyone in the future! The fully operating mechanical full body suit from Sarcos already shows how much exoskeletons have improved since 1965. Therefore, it may not be that unrealistic to think they will evolve even more in the future. They might not be available for all of us yet, but for now we can assume they are playing a key role in the medical, army and industrial world.
- Sarcos (2020). Sarcos Guardian XO Exoskeleton at CES 2020 [Youtube Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmvpcHp_ERE
- Limm, A. (2019). Exoskeletons available to buy and use in 2020, industry overview. Medium.https://medium.com/@limm/exoskeletons-available-to-buy-and-use-in-2020-industry-overview-e84fa40b0778
- Shein, E. (2019). Exoskeletons Today. March 2019 | Communications of the ACM. https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2019/3/234915-exoskeletons-today/fulltext
- TU Delft. (2019). Project MARCH. https://www.tudelft.nl/d-dream/teams/project-march/
- Rex Bionics. (2020). Rex Bionics – Reimagining Rehabilitation. https://www.rexbionics.com/
- Lockheed Martin. (2020). Exoskeleton Technologies: Military. https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/products/exoskeleton-technologies/military.html