It is not possible to save the world with exoskeletons. However, they do make life better for patients in medical rehabilitation, and now they’re being made suitable for industrial deployment.
How are Iron Man and Batman different to Superman? As David Carradine correctly points out in the film Kill Bill, Superman acquired his supernatural powers naturally, so to speak, while Iron Man and Batman have to change into their special suits before they can save the world. In other words, for their heroic acts they rely on what is known as exoskeletons – extremely high-tech body supports or armour.
Just Hollywood fiction? Not at all – intelligent exoskeletons are currently on the increase. However, this was not always the case. The first models for military purposes were developed as early as the beginning of the 1960s by the US defense research agency, DARPA, together with its partner institutes and companies. However, unfortunately the project did not seem to want to work.
The Man Amplifier, for example, built by Neil Mizen and his team at the Aeronautical Lab at Cornell University, was never used because the electronic joint strengtheners did not work correctly. The Hardiman Suit presented by General Electric in 1965 had a little more success – however, not the entire suit but only its exoskeletal arm, with which the user could lift weights of up to 370 kilograms.
In the meantime, dozens of exoskeleton-based solutions have been developed and tested in the military field. However, none of them are particularly convincing, firstly because they limit the agility of the deployed soldiers and secondly because the battery life is limited, which can be extremely dangerous.
The chairless chairs are exoskeletons that are attached to the legs and shoes and, through this, largely support the body weight of industrial workers or those who work on conveyor belts.
In the industrial industry, these two problems dissolve into thin air. On the one hand because, in a production area, the battery can be replaced or recharged at any time, and on the other hand, because the exoskeletal solution can be precisely tailored to individual work environments and sequences.
With an exoskeleton, workers lift
One of the world’s largest shipyards, the South Korean Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, realised this. Their research and development department has thus developed an exoskeletal robotic helper for specialist workers, which allows them to lift 30 kilograms without effort. This is particularly important for work procedures in which special parts need to be used and welded – procedures for which robots would be unsuitable. Specialist workers have a great deal of expertise, intuitive fine-motor skills and flexibility – in other words, human capabilities that most fully automated machines are still lacking.
Also designed for industrial use is what is known as the chairless chair, developed by the Swiss start-up company Noonee in collaboration with the robotics laboratory at ETH Zurich. The chairless chairs are exoskeletons that are attached to the legs and shoes and, by means of controls and pressing a button, can be set so that the industrial or conveyer belt worker is largely relieved of the burden of his or her own body weight.
The exoskeletons that have recently started to be used more in rehabilitative medicine work in a similar, but basically opposite manner. They help people whose movements are extremely restricted to slowly relearn their coordination. For example, the model by Ekso Bionics, which is currently being tested at the Nottwil paraplegics centre. Just like we said: the exoskeletons are on the increase.