For decades, engineers and sci-fi buffs have dreamed of an exoskeleton that could boost human strength, turning an average person into a real-world Iron Man. But few people know that in the 1960s, GE set out to bring this vision to life. In other words, the company set out to build its own human exoskeleton.
Dubbed Hardiman, the suit was funded by the U.S. military, and was designed to mimic the user’s natural movements, enabling him to lift up to 1,500 lbs. Of course, this impressive power came at a price — the suit itself weighed 1,500 lbs and included 28 joints and two grasping arms connected by a complex hydraulic and electronic network.
Ultimately, Hardiman’s size, weight, lack of stability, and power-supply issues kept it from ever being developed beyond an experimental prototype.
Today, a new class of exoskeletons has stepped off the drawing board and into reality. Touted as “the real Iron Man,” the XOS 2 suit is arguably the most advanced exoskeleton to date. Recently unveiled by Raytheon and funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, XOS 2 allows its wearer to “do the work of two to three soldiers,” according to its creators — including the function of lifting hundreds of pounds for long periods of time.
In Japan, Cyberdyne (no, not the one from Terminator) has developed another wearable robotic suit called HAL that is already on the market. The battery-powered suit was designed to help the disabled and people in rehabilitation therapy, and is being tested for use in hospitals, with nurses wearing it to lift heavy patients.
Although GE’s exoskeleton never made it into production, some of the 1960s-era “Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machine” technology that went into Hardiman survives today, in the form of the Man-Mate industrial manipulator. Here’s an impressive video clip from the ‘70s describing the machine — and how it can be traced back to Robert Heinlein and his 1959 classic, Starship Troopers.
Western Space and Marine, which was founded by a GE engineer who worked on the Man-Mate line in the 1970s, bought the rights to the Man-Mate technology and continued to develop and improve it. The giant robotic arm, which uses force-feedback to allow the operator to lift loads up to 10,000 lbs, is today used mostly in the forging and foundry industries.
The video shows the walking truck GE was also developing in the 1960s.