Robotic Exoskeletons Could Turn You Into Iron Man, Or Just Help You Walk Again

Brilliance | Dec. 18, 2017

It's a staple of comic books: a powerful robot suit you can wear to achieve superhuman strength. It's also a thing that exists at this moment. A number of companies are hard at work developing and refining robotic exoskeletons that can do everything from creating armies of super soldiers to helping paralyzed patients walk again.

Healing With Robots

Real-life superheroes are one thing, but where robotic suits show their biggest promise is in the medical field. In full-body designs or worn from the lower back or waist down, therapeutic exoskeletons use tiny motors attached to orthotics to help people who usually get around in wheelchairs control their joints and regain the ability to walk. For these people, getting around is only one benefit, since the ability to stand and move around also helps them prevent muscle atrophy, build strength, and boost blood circulation.

The technology still has a way to go, according to Leslie Katz at CNET. The suits, she reports, "can be bulky, with a gait best described as robotic. Users can walk with them only on solid, level surfaces and need crutches for balance and support." Only a few companies have regulatory approval to sell consumer exoskeletons, and the machines can cost nearly six figures. Still, the ability to stand and walk around can mean everything for someone who spends their days in a wheelchair, whatever the price.

I Am Iron Man?

So what about those who can already walk? Is a real-life Iron Man on the horizon? Unfortunately, these exoskeletons won't turn you into a superhero, at least not in their current form. So far, every effort engineers have made to create a super-strong full-body exoskeleton have run into one big snag: the stronger the suit, the more power it needs, which requires a bigger battery and makes it heavier. A heavier suit consumes more power, creating a vicious cycle. That's what exoskeletons like Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics' HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) and Sarcos/Raytheon's XOS2 have encountered.

Instead, industrial and military efforts are focusing on making people's jobs easier, rather than making them superhuman. DARPA's Warrior Web exoskeleton is a lower-body device ("think heavy-duty Spanx for war," writes WIRED) that makes it easier for soldiers to march long distances and gathers data on their physical activity. Panasonic has been developing assistance suits that can help factory workers lift moderately heavy loads without stressing their lower backs, and is also testing one that may help people carry as much as 220 pounds. Robotic exoskeletons won't make us all superheroes, but they will certainly do what technology does best: make our lives easier.

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