Building real-life iron men

How the development of innovative robotic exoskeletons could change healthcare and industry forever

‘Exoskeleton’ may sound like something from a superhero movie but, in reality, this integral piece of technology is used in practices as disparate as architecture and healthcare.

Exoskeletons are wearable machines, worn on the outside of the body and mostly powered by motors or levers. The first recorded use of an exoskeleton was as early as 1890. Early versions of the exoskeleton – most notably a 1960s military model developed by General Electric and the US military – were powered by hydraulics.

Since then, the suits have evolved significantly. Previously ungainly and heavy, with the 1960s model weighing 680kg, the use of alloy metals like steel, aluminium and titanium has made exoskeletons lighter, more flexible and, most importantly, actually wearable.

An exoskeleton that’s light but durable

Homayoon Kazerooni, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, is part of a team of Berkeley alumni working on a steel exoskeleton called SuitX. At present, SuitX has two applications: an industrial exoskeleton nicknamed ‘MAX’ (Modular Agile Exoskeleton) and a medical exoskeleton, Phoenix.

“We want to develop a new set of technologies that emphasise elegance, minimal hardware and intelligent control,” says Kazerooni. Phoenix, which is made from steel, plastic and carbon fibre, is “the world’s lightest and most advanced exoskeleton”, according to Kazerooni, and that it has helped “many individuals with mobility disorders to stand up, walk about and speak to peers eye to eye”.

“It doesn’t feel like the robot is moving me; it feels like I’m the one actually moving and walking.”

The USP of the Phoenix is its weight, and it is easy-to-mould materials such as steel that are making this possible. The SuitX models are made flexible, durable and light by steel and its ability to compliment other materials. Phoenix weighs in at just 12.25kg, meaning that wearers can walk for long periods for the first time. The exoskeleton has also been designed to be modular, meaning that it can be broken down or scaled to fit depending on a person’s particular disability.

 

 

Physical and psychological benefits

Steve Sanchez, who helps road test the Phoenix, says that the light material and modular build of the suit means that “it doesn’t feel like the robot is moving me; it feels like I’m the one actually moving and walking”.

Similar exoskeletons have also been developed for knee and hip movements, for those with lower limb disabilities, and for those with impairment in their arms. The technology is genuinely life-changing; those who can’t walk are able to stand upright for perhaps the first time in years, and some are even able to move around for long periods – users of Phoenix can walk for four hours continuously or eight hours intermittently.

Sanchez, who uses the suit to get up from his wheelchair, says that there are extensive psychological benefits to the exoskeleton. “Besides physical feelings, Phoenix gives psychological feedback,” he says. “The way someone else perceives the user in the suit changes, giving more confidence to the person in the suit. Being labelled as ‘disabled’ can have a very negative effect on a person. Using this suit helps remove those labels and makes the user feel more human.”

 

Watch the SuitX exoskeletons in action…

 

Enabling superhuman strength

This medical use is perhaps the most widely publicised use of steel exoskeletons, but it’s not the only one. SuitX’s own MAX system is designed to be used in the workplace. Workers wearing the exoskeleton can complete “shoulder, lower back and leg intensive tasks” with much reduced injury risk.

The MAX system, Kazerooni says, has been used widely in factories and in steel industries, including shipbuilding and construction. Like Phoenix, the materials used in the MAX system make it incredibly light, weighing just six kilogrammes, and it’s not the only exoskeleton being used in industrial settings.

DSME, Daewoo’s shipbuilding and marine engineering company, is also beginning to use steel exoskeletons in its day-to-day construction work. Its strong self-supporting exoskeleton allows workers, as with SuitX’s MAX system, to lift incredible weights without feeling the strain on muscles or joints. It provides wearers with 30kg lifting power, dramatically improving productivity and capacity in the workplace.

As for the future? Kazerooni believes that exoskeletons will continue to develop at great speed. SuitX’s industrial exoskeletons have been “evaluated worldwide” and he thinks that they will “become much more common in various factories and foundries”. DSME is also rapidly developing its technology, and its exoskeleton is part of its ‘Vision 2020’ plan, a project aiming to “push ahead with the development, application and commercialisation” of high-performance robots. It might not be Iron Man quite yet – but we’re getting there.

 

Images: Erica Zeidenberg
Video: US Bionics