Exoskeletons Advance Human-Robotic Augmentation
Medical & military R&D are major drivers for emerging technologies. Both have big budgets and life-or-death motivations with frequently overlapping goals. These massive interconnected sandboxes churn out an abundance of tech hardware that eventually ends up on the street. Two announcements this week highlight how these industries are driving the ongoing convergence of human and robotic augmentation.
On the military side, defense contractor, Raytheon, has announced the latest version of their field exoskeleton, the XOS 2. The 95kg-tethered bodysuit is 40% stronger than it’s predecessor, the XOS 1, and can lift 23kg per arm. Raytheon claims to have reduced power usage by half in the new model.
Driven by hydraulics, the suit is primarily designed to reinforce load-carrying capabilities in the field, though one can imagine all sorts of supersoldier fantasies coming to pass. Raytheon hopes to see field deployment of the XOS line within 5 years, though they must work past several barriers, least of which is its tethered power supply.
The Raytheon site offers video coverage, including the inevitable Marvel Comics crossover featuring Iron Man’s Agent Phil Coulson. As is so often the case, milspec R&D strives to cast another design fiction into reality.
Additional coverage of the Raytheon announcement is at Scientific American.
Looking at medical developments, Technology Review reports that Berkeley researchers have demonstrated a portable, lightweight exoskeleton designed to help paraplegics recover their ability to walk. The device is untethered and self powered but it’s most interesting characteristic is it’s ability to emulate a natural human gait. Contrary to military exoskeletons that reinforce existing movements, the Berkeley suit replaces lost movement. Using a combination of remote sensors, on-board central processing, and coordinated hydraulic pumps, the suit gives support to the wearer while sensing and responding to the environment. In effect, the suit uses the learned gait of others to confer the same gate onto paraplegics.
The Berkeley suit has been tested on four paraplegic users. They were each able to walk within 2 hours of training. Of note, the medical exoskeleton uses parts from two unnamed military suits, illustrating the permeability between these two domains. Given current trajectories, both types of exoskeleton will likely see significant advances in weight, power consumption, and natural motion within only a few years. Given the programmability of the Berkeley suit, it’s possible that exoskeletons could come with batch programs for complex motions, further extending the functionality of the wearer.
Curiously, both the SciAm and Technology Review articles mention CYBERDYNE – the Japanese robotics developer named after the fated creators of Skynet in the Terminator series. Again, life imitates fiction… hopefully with less onerous consequences.