Can we build exoskeleton suits like the ones in Iron Man movies?
Robotic exoskeletons are considered to be wearable robotic units that are controlled by computer boards in order to power a system of motors, pneumatics, levers, or hydraulics to restore locomotion. In the present time, the most dynamic subset of the exoskeleton industry is the wearable robotics technology. The exosuits or exoskeletons are structures fitted with motorized muscles to increase the wearer’s strength, reducing injuries and improving compliance. Everything began with creating exosuits for military personnel followed by healthcare, agriculture and now for the manufacturing sector, where employees have to carry and transfer heavy loads and perform monotonous tasks. In healthcare, the suits help spinal cord injury patients and disabled people to walk or use their body parts. Nowadays, many companies are focusing on smaller and more specialized exoskeletons that target a specific body as opposed to building a full bodysuit.
Even though relatively few exosuits exist, the list of potential clients for exosuits is long and growing at a staggering rate. For instance, ABI Research predicts that the robotic exoskeleton market alone will reach $1.8 billion in 2025.
Military exoskeletons are being tested by the US, Japan, China, Canada, South Korea, Great Britain, Russia, and Australia, and these are just the projects that the public is aware of. Numerous other military exoskeleton projects remain secret. Companies are figuring out a way to reduce the size and power consumption of military exoskeleton. Over the years, military exoskeletons have evolved into smaller, compact and more advanced machines. For comparison, some of the initial versions of the early generation exoskeleton suits like HULC weighed 53 lb. (24 kg) compared to 11 lb. (5 kg) for many of the new and advanced military exosuits.
In order to equip soldiers with exosuits, companies would have to deal with factors like making the exosuits comfortable enough to wear for long hours and integration with already established military equipment and standards so that exosuits does not get in the way of weapons or in the ability of the soldier to take cover. Furthermore, exoskeletons have to be reliable and very durable. Assume, a paratrooper jumps off a plane, lands the parachute into a lake, then crawls through mud and runs for cover to engage the enemy then in that situation exoskeleton has to work and not become a liability for the soldier.
EXOSKELETON & IT’S SUBFIELD:-
A lone soldier stands in a dark alley, eyeing a door. Even though he’s covered in bulky armor, he charges forward and bursts through, and is engulfed in a barrage of gunfire. Rather than retreat, the soldier stands tall as bullets ping off him harmlessly. This isn’t a trailer for the latest superhero movie. It’s an animation produced by the U.S. military, designed to show off its vision for a brawny robotic exoskeleton that it hopes to deploy with elite commandos. Dubbed the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, it’s the focus of a multimillion-dollar research project catalyzed by a commando’s death during a hostage rescue in Afghanistan.
The TALOS is just one part of a much larger, global research push to develop exoskeletons that would endow people with superhuman strength and endurance.
Full Body Military Exoskeletons: There have been few actual prototypes in development as many projects have been split in half into or modular lower body and upper body wearable robots because of being very large, bulky and power and control issues.
- HULC by Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics
- XSO and XSO2 by Sarcos/Raytheon
Lower Body Powered Military Exoskeletons: If exosuits extends all the way down to the ground, it can be used to transfer loads. It provides mobility assist and decreases the metabolic cost of movement.
- Compliant Universal Knee Exosuit by Ekso Bionics
- Hercule by RB3D
Passive Military Exoskeletons: Passive exoskeletons do not have any actuators, batteries or electronics. This new trend originated from a DARPA-funded program dubbed Warrior Web, which seeks to prevent damage to injury-prone areas of the body and minimize fatigue.
- Marine Mojo by 20KTS+ by DSTO (Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Organization)
- Aura Soft Exosuit
Energy Scavenging Military Exoskeletons: Energy scavenging exoskeletons purposely hinder the soldier in an attempt to collect energy. The collected energy can be turned into electricity to recharge a battery or directly power a device (such as a communication device). Usually, energy extraction from walking happens at the heel. If we assume that deployment of a soldier is 72 hours (3 days), then a soldier needs to have enough electricity to power all of their devices for that entire period. We can replace the old bulky batteries with a smaller rechargeable battery which will continuously charge the exoskeleton during the 72 hour period.
- PowerWalk by Bionic Power
- SPaRK by SpringActive
There is a real opportunity for the adoption of exoskeletons in the military as this will help the soldiers to cover more ground, have more supplies, become more independent and have additional armor.
Exoskeletons can be either passive which is without the use of actuators, motors, or batteries or active. In the construction and manufacturing industries, passive exosuit systems are popular because of being less costly and the absence of actuators and other electronic components.
Industrial exoskeleton is the collective name given to mechanical devices worn by workers. Bodyweight support, lift assistance, load maintenance, positioning correction, and body stabilization are common capabilities of industrial exoskeletons. Exosuits systems come in many forms, including systems that attach at the hip and have weight carried by the exosuits such as Lockheed Martin’s FORTIS or Hyundai’s Chairless Exoskeleton which acts as a seat when needed. Others, such as FLx ErgoSkeleton by StrongArm Technologies is an upper-body system which helps in protecting workers from many back-related injuries and the physical pain that occurs from improper lifting technique.
More commercial class powered exoskeletons include:-
- ATOUN’s Power Assist ARM
- Innophys’ Muscle Suit
- Cyberdyne’s HAL for Labor Support
- Ottobock’s Paexo
- Levitate Technologies’ AIRFRAME
- SuitX’s MAX Exoskeleton Suit
- Bioservo Technologies’ Ironhand
Exoskeletons have emerged as a rehabilitation tool for persons with spinal cord injury (SCI). Apart from enabling people to walk who have lost their legs, exosuits can be used to enhance precision during surgery and to help nurses move and carry heavy patients.
Honda recently earned the right to sell its “Walking Assistant Device” in the U.S. after pre-clinical trials confirmed its usefulness in promoting neuromuscular recovery for “gait rehabilitation” after a stroke. It’s already in use at 250 facilities in Japan.
Companies like ReWalk and SuitX have always developed medical exosuits followed by Ekso Bionics, which manufactures exoskeletons that can be used by patients recovering from a stroke and spinal cord injuries and Phoenix, which manufactures motorized, lower-body framework that enables people with severe mobility issues to rise up from their wheelchairs and walk.
This concludes that from physiotherapy to emergency services or from construction work to military operations exoskeletons can be used. In any case, many significant challenges remain a problem, for example, battery performance and getting the machine to move in perfect synchrony with its operator. The reality is we are a long way from what we have seen in Marvel or Sci-Fi films but the exoskeleton industry is unquestionably going to leave a big impact in the upcoming time.
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