A New Day for Exoskeletons

How a previously lost idea for superhuman strength may have found its way It's 1965. Bob Dylan's gone electric. Astronaut Edward Higgins White...

How a previously lost idea for superhuman strength may have found its way

It's 1965. Bob Dylan's gone electric. Astronaut Edward Higgins White has just made the first space walk by an American. The Soviets have shot a rocket off to Venus. And General Electric, perhaps buoyed by the scientific optimism of the age, is building Hardiman.A 1,500-pound robotic suit with upwards of 30 joints and massive, cartoon-like limbs, Hardiman -"Hardi" is short for "Human Augmentation Research and Development Investigation"- was the stuff of geek fantasy, something straight from the cover of a pulp science fiction paperback, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Thanks to funding from the Department of Defense, however, this strength-amplifying suit was almost a reality. When sported, it could ostensibly turn even the weakest poindexter into a weight-lifting machine, with the help of a complex network of hydraulic and electric linkages rigged up to a jointed framework.Unfortunately, the Hardiman project disintegrated when G.E. engineers realized that although the exoskeleton's robotic arms allowed the wearer to lift over 750 pounds, they themselves weighed three quarters of a ton. The suit was also dangerous to wear, prone to violent, uncontrollable movement.These days, robotic suits are making a comeback, thanks largely to a change in focus from building superhuman strength to leveling the playing field for people who need it. This shift may be exactly what the dream of powered exoskeletons required to take that last, all-too-important step into reality.For as long as both genres have existed, exoskeletons have been a usual suspect in sci-fi and Japanese manga-where it goes by the name "mecha." They were also on the drawing boards of ambitious engineers, who have been tinkering with the suits since the first U.S. awarded a patent in 1890 for a funny prosthetic doohickey with long springs, intended to improve running and jumping. Since then, powered exoskeletons have seen as many tragic pitfalls as they have triumphs; G.E.'s Hardiman is just one chapter of that checkered history.

In 1963, the U.S. Army Exterior Ballistics Laboratory detailed the possibility of a pneumatically powered device, consisting of a large "saddle" attached to a pair of specially-designed shoes. The superhuman power it conferred upon its wearer: the ability to trot for miles without tiring. In the mid-80s, there was PITMAN-the pet project of an engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico-a strength-enhancing suit which took its movement cues from brain-scanning helmet sensors. Designed for the Army, PITMAN preceded decades of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) research into the feasibility of such suits.None of these machines ever made it far, but the hopes and ambitions of these pioneering designs have set the scene for a whole new generation of svelte, workable, and most importantly, real, exoskeletons.Powered suits are enjoying a surge in popularity virtually unseen since the '60s. The sheer variety of current, ongoing exoskeleton projects almost defies description: The alluring Japanese HAL-5 is a full-body suit that looks more iPod than Iron Man. The utilitarian BLEEX, or Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, is a set of robotic legs built by robotics geeks at Cal-Berkeley that allow their wearer to effortlessly lug huge weights. And the glee-inducing SpringWalker is a pair of gangly legs that will eventually allow people to run at 30 MPH and effortlessly bound over walls-fulfilling the promise of the very first exoskeleton. The Army, too, is pouring money into all kinds of next-generation infantry combat projects, like a new robotic suit that enables its wearer to "easily carry a man on his back or lift 200 pounds several hundred times without tiring," according to its manufacturer, Raytheon, Inc.-all while remaining flexible enough to sport while playing soccer.The difference between this new crop of exoskeletons and the failed Hardimen of the past is surprising -- they're not all meant to create real-life Iron Men. Take a look at the HAL-5 suit, which is built and mass-produced by the upstart Japanese company CYBERDYNE, Inc.-an outfit that openly tips its hat to science fiction hallmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terminator. CYBERDYNE isn't looking to rent out its $1,300-a-month exoskeleton to, say, the U.S. Marines. Rather, it believes the suit has the potential to assist senior citizens and the disabled with their daily exertions or to help construction and disaster rescue workers work longer hours without tiring. Ditto a pair of robo-legs designed by Honda, which could ease muscular wear and tear for anyone who spends a lot of time crouching and standing up-people like factory and construction workers-as well as the elderly and infirm. This tender new approach has opened up an entirely new market of possibilities for robotic suits, which no longer need to be designed for battle situations in order to receive funding.Which means: Unlike hoverboards, the dinner pill, and robotic maids named Rosie, ubiquitous powered exoskeletons are one dream of the past that might actually be fulfilled in our lifetimes.(Lead photo courtesy of Cyberdyne, Inc.)