From Aliens’ Caterpillar P-5000 Work Loader (that’s the “Power Loader” to you and I) through the Combat Jackets from Edge of Tomorrow to Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor, science fiction is full of cool assistive robot exosuits. But real life is catching up with sci-fi.
With one-time imaginary concepts like delivery robots, self-driving cars, rockets that land vertically and A.I. assistants all part of our lives to some extend, how much longer until wearable robots are everyday occurrences as well? Not long, if any of these amazing wearable robot projects have anything to say about it.
DARPA’s Soft Exosuit
A lot of the best robot exosuits in movies and video games are designed with military application in mind. This list would therefore be remiss if we didn’t include DARPA’s in-development Soft Exosuit. Developed by Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, this innovative multi-joint exosuit artificially assists lower body movement through cables controlled by a waist-mounted mobile actuation unit able to be integrated with a military rucksack.
The project has been in development for a few years as the technology is improved. While it’s not, as far as Digital Trends is aware, being deployed in the field just yet, it has been tested by soldiers on lengthy cross-country hikes. The aim is to develop a tool that will allow ground-based soldiers to better travel long distances without arriving at their destination feeling fatigued.
LG’s Cloi SuitBot
Many of the exosuits on this list are being developed in research labs, or have the backing of only small companies. Cloi SuitBot, the robot exosuit built by South Korean Android smartphone giants LG and SG Robotics, doesn’t fit into either of those categories.
First shown off at IFA 2018 and then again at CES 2019, this lower body robotic exosuit is designed to enhance wearers’ leg movements to aid with activities such as warehouse workers lifting heavy objects. It also uses A.I. technology to work out individual wearer’s personal weaknesses and only kick into action when it’s needed. This helps to optimize power consumption and conserve battery life.
There’s no word on exactly when LG will bring this to market or how much they will cost. At present, it seems to still be working to come up with a finished streamlined design. Still, for everything from the challenges of marketing to the deep pockets needed to bring this tech to market, the fact that giant companies are jumping on this market is very exciting.
LG’s not the only big company interested in exosuits, either. Samsung, the consumer giant with its fingers in seemingly every tech pie going, is also developing its own exosuit.
The Gait Enhancing Motivational System (GEMS) is another lower body assistive exosuit, designed to help out your knees, ankles and hips. There are several different models in the works, with one of the most interesting being GEMS-H. It promises to help with your walking by increasing your speed around 20%, while also saving you energy.
It can also correct your posture, and even provide the necessary help to climb up and down steep flights of stairs. No word on when it will be released, but Samsung has shown off the wearable tech at various big venues such as CES 2019.
An exosuit for the factory floor
One of the first big companies to jump on the promise of exosuits was the Ford Motor Company. This is no future hypothetical interest. At its vehicle assembly plants, employees already use an upper-body exoskeleton called the EksoVest to augment their lifting abilities so as to more easily hold car parts overhead. The EksoVest was developed in partnership with Ekso Bionics, intended to reduce wear and tear on employees’ bodies.
While it won’t give you Superman-like abilities to lift cars above your head, the exoskeleton vest can help lift and support up to 15 pounds per arm. It’s wearable by workers ranging from 5-foot 2-inches to 6-foot 4-inches tall.
Nor is Ford isn’t the only company developing similar tools for factories. Levitate Technologies has developed its own (fire-resistant) upper body robotic exoskeleton, capable of lowering exertion levels by up to 80% for a person carrying out physically taxing work involving repetitive arm movements. Levitate’s Airframe tech is already being used by customers including Toyota Motor Manufacturing, BMW Manufacturing Company, and others.
In movies, the best exosuits are the bulky, instantly recognizable one that toy companies can use to sell action figures. In real life, things are a bit different. As cool as pop culture-themed prosthetics may be for kids, for everyday applications many people would prefer a robotic exoskeleton that’s barely visible at all. While still being able to offer assistance such as aiding with heavy lifting tasks or making walking easier, such an exosuit could be worn beneath everyday clothing, with no negative impact on a person’s natural movement.
At Vanderbilt University, mechanical engineers have been working on a spring-powered soft exoskeleton designed to reduce loading on a person’s calf muscles as they move about. The device weighs one solitary pound, is totally silent — and, impressively, contains no motors or batteries.
“The device uses a novel under-the-foot clutch mechanism that we invented, and an extension spring that acts in parallel with the user’s calf muscles,” Professor Karl Zelik, who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “As a person walks, some of the force that typically goes through their muscles is redirected and goes through the assistive spring instead. This reduces the muscle force and effort needed to walk.”
Not available yet to purchase, the researchers have nonetheless designed it with possible mass-production in mind. The current prototype could be manufactured for as little as $100.
We’re never going to get sniffy about wearable robot exosuits that can give people super-strength or the ability to walk further (or, in some cases, walk at all.) But there are plenty of other exosuit projects which offer other skills that sound kind of fascinating. FlyJacket is an experimental soft exosuit developed by researchers at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
It allows users to pilot drones by, in essence, acting like a drone. That means stretching out your arms like wings and pitching or rolling your upper body. A virtual reality shows the user the drone’s eye view of proceedings.
“The torso inclination, recorded with an inertial measurement unit embedded in the exosuit, is translated into drone [commands],” Carine Rognon, a researcher on the project from EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, told Digital Trends. “As people tend to intuitively fly with the arm spread out, we included a passive arm support to the exosuit to prevent arm fatigue.” Imagine how many other pieces of tech could also be controlled in a similar way!
A real life Iron Man suit
FlyJacket sounds great and all, but if you’re really into the power of flight and robot exosuits you may find what you’re looking for a bit closer to home with Gravity Industries’ (frankly bonkers, but in a good way) jet-propelled robot suit.
Comprising five jet engines, a 3D-printed structure, and a head-up display for showing your remaining fuel levels, this is about as close to being the real Iron Man as you could hope for. You could even learn to fly it in about the length of a typical Marvel movie, too.
“We’ve had a pilot with [as little as] five minutes’ training who managed to hover untethered very happily,” inventor Richard Browning told Digital Trends. “A lot does depend on fitness level and aptitude, but you don’t have to be a superhero or superhuman to fly it. It taps into an innate human balancing ability in a really uncanny way, so it’s extremely accessible.”
The bad news? You’ll probably have to have Robert Downey Jr. levels of funding to afford it, since the jetsuit costs $446,000 to buy. We guess there’s always the prospect of leasing it…