For as long as mankind has been able to walk, we’ve always longed to do more – to be faster and stronger. But we’ve always been limited by the capabilities of the human body. After all, a human can only be so big or so strong – and that’s where powered exoskeletons come in. They may seem like something straight out of a science fiction film, but exoskeletons are as real as anything else – and they could transform the way we live.

Medical applications

One of the biggest and most beneficial uses for the powered exoskeleton is not in enhancing strength, but in restoring it. Modern powered exoskeletons are being designed to provide robotically enhanced walking to patients who may have lost some or all of the use of their legs. In addition, powered exoskeletons can help in rehabilitation by offering the small but very precise movements needed in gradual physiotherapy.

Industrial applications

While we’re not yet in a place where robots can replace human effort, we are ready to start implementing assistive robotics. Also known as ‘passive’ exoskeletons, these are units that can be worn by workers in manufacturing and other industrial roles. Essentially, a passive exoskeleton carries some of the burdens for the wearer by providing powered assistance in lifting heavy items or simply moving a lot. These exoskeletons can reduce worker injury and prevent errors due to worker fatigue.

Military applications

If you’ve watched any sci-fi movie, you’ll know that exoskeletons are already well-known in books and films – usually in a military context. But in the real world, militaries are looking into the use of powered exoskeletons – not as unmanned weapons, but as assistive technologies to help soldiers move better and use less energy. The aim of these exoskeletons is not to enhance a soldier’s offensive capabilities, but rather keep them safe and reduce fatigue – similarly to the industrial applications. As of 2019, the US army has put the development of exoskeletons on hold pending more research.

Powered exoskeletons along with further advancements in humanoid robotics are certainly an evolving field, with much work still to be done. But when it comes to improving human capability, it looks like the exoskeleton will be the first step in the mass adoption of assistive robotics.

Photo: Stelarc 1 by Cea. licensed under Creative Commons 4.0