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A Bespoke Suit of Carbon and Steel: Wearable Robotic Exoskeletons Help Paralyzed People Walk, Workers Become Iron Man

SuitX, a company in California, has built a robotic exoskeleton that weighs just 27 pounds and allows wearers to cover a mile in an hour. As futuristic as the suit is, it’s been a long time coming.

Homayoon Kazerooni, founder and CEO of SuitX, says the suit, called the Phoenix, has the potential to help people with spinal cord or stroke injury, or those suffering from neurological disease, to walk again. “We can’t really fix their disease,” Kazerooni told Technology Review. “We can’t fix their injury. But what it would do is postpone the secondary injuries due to sitting. It gives a better quality of life.”

The exoskeleton uses processors and controllers attached to motors at the hips and knees to drive the foot supports. Its backpack batteries can last eight hours. Users control the suit with buttons built into a pair of accompanying crutches. It will costs around $40,0000.

Engineers have been working on machines that can help people walk, work and even fight for decades. They imagined that factory workers and soldiers outfitted with an exoskeleton could easily lift and carry heavy tools and equipment without growing tired.

BIGge-hardiman copy

GE’s Hardiman could lift 1,500 pounds. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

GE engineers began making their own suit in the 1960s – the Hardiman. The research was funded by the U.S. military and the exoskeleton’s purpose was to give its wearer superhuman strength. It had 28 joints and two grasping arms connected by a complex hydraulic and electronic network. It allowed the wearer to lift up to 1,500 pounds.

hand

Hardiman GIF courtesy of Kevin Weir, Flux Machine.

The era’s technological limitations, though, demanded that the Hardiman was born weighing 1,500 pounds. That much weight, combined with stability and power-supply issues, stopped the exoskeleton from ever moving out of the experimental stage.

Walking Truck

GE engineers also built a walking truck. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

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Flux Machine also animated the walking truck.

Work on exoskeletons continued into the 1980s and ’90s, with focus on power assist and physical therapy suits. The technology began evolving rapidly at the start of the 21st century with projects like Cyberdyne’s assistive wearable machines, Honda’s body weight support assist and the University of California, Berkeley’s, Lower Extremity Exoskeleton.

There’s still a lot to be done, but no matter which models are eventually adopted by the people and industries that need them, it is clear that the technology is rapidly advancing and will eventually become a useful mobility and human augmentation tool. Be prepared to be awed: Iron Man, and Iron Woman, are coming.

Pedipulator008

This is a prototype of GE’s Pedipulator. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Ralph Mosher and Art Bueche with Walking Truck and Hardiman models 1966[1]

GE engineers Ralph Mosher and Art Bueche with Walking Truck and Hardiman models in 1966. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

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