We are approaching a point where the functional, powered exoskeleton is moving from a possibility to an inevitability. Advancements in exoskeletal assistants for the elderly, therapeutic devices for people with spinal cord injuries and workplace applications – including in the military – show the tech to be an amplifier of human effort. The concept has been around for some time, but there is a very real possibility that they will soon be quite commonplace.

Combining cutting-edge tech

Recent advancements in brushless motors, battery technology and advanced control systems mean that the modern powered exoskeleton can be subtle and sleek, to the extent that it might soon be wearable under one’s clothing. A leader in the market is a Japanese company called Cyberdyne. Their penchant for pop culture references extends to the acronym HAL for their hybrid product, the Hybrid Assistive Limb.

The most popular HAL configuration sees it mount to the pelvis and legs, detecting nerve signals to assist with the intended movements of people with limited motion in their lower body. It’s an improvement on the idea of an exoskeleton that is controlled, wherein the user is more of a passenger, using a mechanical biofeedback system to interpret signals from the brain.

The world of work

The applications of the powered exoskeleton extend beyond the therapeutic and healthcare tech industry. There is scope for them to support and protect workers who do the heavy lifting in the workplace, for example. This could come in the form of protecting the lower back and legs, or perhaps the arms and shoulders in industries like the automotive assembly line. They enable people to lift greater loads with less effort, helping prevent injury and increase productivity.

There are also inroads being made to military markets. Powered exoskeleton units for the lower limbs may help soldiers move around more quickly, carrying heavier loads whilst decreasing fatigue as they go. One imagined prospect is for the Hardiman suit, which could enable a single soldier to lift and carry up to 500kg; helpful for loading bombs into planes.

Some of the visions for exoskeleton technology are just ideas at this stage, such as the prospect of an ‘Iron Man’ suit that makes the user stronger and monitors the soldier and their surroundings. But with medical exoskeletons that can help the paralysed walk available for the price of a car, it may not be long before we start seeing new exoskeleton-enhanced sports on the television!

Photo: IMG_0356 by paulbettner licensed under Creative Commons 4.0