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Monday, 26 November 2012

Robotic Suits

Following on from Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature, one thing in particular caught the eye of The Technology Room, namely the robotic suit based on arthropods (basically any animal with a skeleton on the outside of its body, an exoskeleton, as oppose to internal endoskeletons we humans have). In the show, the suit helped a man who had broken his back and hadn’t walked since take his first steps in over 8 years. The Technology Room decided to dive in and explore this world, and below are 3 examples of robotic suits from across the globe. 


American company Ekso Bionics, founded by Homayoon Kazerooni, Russ Angold and Nathan Harding, makes this first suit in our list. All the founders were members of the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, the same laboratory that helped to make someone walk again in the aforementioned section of Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature. The Ekso, also known as eLEGS (Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System), is designed to be a portable exoskeleton which can help paraplegics stand and walk. Although it weighs over 20kg, the user should feel none of that weight, as the Ekso structure ensures that the weight is transferred directly to the ground. Anyone between 5 ft 2” and 6 ft 2” weighing less than 100 kg can wear the suit, and experienced users should be able to take it on and off in less than 5 minutes. The on-board lithium batteries should be able to drive the motors for 6 hours, and allow walking speeds of around 1 mph. The suit is currently undergoing clinical trials, although Ekso plan to launch a personal version in early 2014. The costs are high though, with initial estimates placing the suit at well over £50000. More information on the Ekso can be found here.


Over to Japan, and the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL). This exoskeleton was formed in a joint development by robotics company Cyberdyne and the University of Tsukuba. This differs from the Ekso by providing functions for the torso and arms as well as the lower body. The current HAL-5 model has advanced significantly from its first iteration; the total weight of the suit is approximately 23kg. The first HAL model’s battery alone weighed 22kg. More impressive though is the way the suit operates. Sensors on the suit detect weak bio-signals, sent from the brain when it tries to move a muscle, and the suit then helps provides movement by translating these signals into the intended movement of the wearer. This can aid user movement, and help perform tasks such as lifting heavy objects, which may have previously been impossible for the wearer. The full body specification however, means that the suit can only operate for 2 hours 40 minutes between charges on its lithium batteries. HAL was developed to increase the well-being of the elderly and disabled, although the company is also exploring options in factory labour and rescue sites. The suit can currently be rented in Japan, for a monthly fee of around £1250, with the company announcing plans to expand into the overseas market. Find out more about HAL here.


We return to America for the final exoskeleton in our list, the Raytheon Sarcos XOS 2. Raytheon is the sixth largest military contractor in the world and, unsurprisingly, the XOS 2 has been developed for use by the US army. This 95kg steel and aluminium suit allows its operator to lift up to 17 times the weight they would have otherwise been capable of, whilst still maintaining relatively high ease of movement and agility. There is a catch though. Unlike its lithium battery powered counterparts, the XOS 2 uses hydraulics, and as such needs to be tethered to a hydraulic fluid supply permanently. A hydraulic fluid backpack is being developed by Raytheon though, and is expected to be operational by 2020, with the tethered version hoping to be entered into service by 2015. In the meantime, watch a video of the XOS 2 in action here, or visit Raytheon’s website.

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