Real Life Iron Man Suits
As the old saying goes: the suit makes the man; never will this maxim resonate so well, than when referring to bionic exoskeleton suits. They’ll not only make you the man, they’ll make you superhuman.
Yes, picture this for a second. Imagine walking at an average speed of 20 miles an hour, lifting 300lbs weights as if they weighed only 10 and being able to leap 20-30 feet in the air. Imagine having a bionic extension that shadowed your every move.
You might be thinking that this could only be achieved in comic books, or in glossy Hollywood blockbusters like Iron man or the 1959 epic Starship Troopers. Frighteningly however, robotics has come a long way thanks to the archetypal bunch of mad scientists and inventors, working away in their laboratories.
The reality of an army of indestructible soldiers wearing exoskeleton suits may come sooner than you think. No longer are exoskeleton suits merely wearable joysticks. At long last, robotics is combining our decision-making processes with the dexterity and brute force of the machines. In other words, the mind controls the metal.
However much this might sound like the plot of a bad science fiction movie, the rabbit hole goes deeper. The US Pentagon’s DARPA or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has invested $50 million in robotic exoskeleton projects.
The question to ask, then, is will we see a bionic army, roaming the battlefields of the future or will there be some unexpected twist?
No, I’m not about to prophesize an apocalyptic battle between man and machine (even though as a die-hard sci-fi fan, I think it would be kinda cool). No, brute force, contrary to popular belief is not limited to the realms of the military, but extends to the more mundane. The potential applications of powered suits are endless. Hydraulic limbs could assist people to walk, lift heavy equipment or rubble in rescue missions and aid in construction. Anything is possible after all.
So, without further ado, let’s explore some of the most incredible exoskeletons (in order of coolness) that may be seen on the battlefields of the future or helping us in our every day lives.
5. The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX)
The director of UC Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory Homayoon Kazerooni’s central aim was "to create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle." The project, funded by DARPA, was, in 2004, the most advanced exoskeletal suit. It has subsequently been overtaken by others on the list however.
BLEEX: How does it work?
Much like a human nervous system surprisingly. There are a series of 40 sensors and hydraulic actuators, which form a local area network. The machine therefore is able to shadow the subject’s every move.
One challenge was designing the fuel-based power actuation system, vital for sustaining soldiers on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this hasn’t yet been perfected.
Watch a video of it in action.
4. The Landwalker Exoskeleton
At 3.4 meters tall and weighing in at 1000kg, this juggernaut looks like something out of Star Wars. It is in fact, a devilish mix of Japanese machinery and vision, from the robotics manufacturer Sakakibara-Kikai.
The Evil Juggernaut: The Landwalker
Unlike the UC Berkeley project, this exoskeleton is not anthropomorphic and not as intelligent. It sure looks cool though: it has a gun mounted on each side, which can currently only fire squishy pink balls, but given a bit of development time, this bad boy will scare the hell out of any soldiers on the battlefield. If you want to buy one, it’ll set you back 36 million yen, roughly US$345,000.
You can watch a test drive here.
3. Hal 5
HAL, short for Hybrid Assistive Limb, is not a war machine. In fact, it is designed to assist people who have difficulty walking or lifting heavy objects.
Hal5 is the latest in a series of robots designed by Dr. Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. The structure of the exoskeleton is composed of nickel and aluminum alloys, as well as a thick plastic casing. Inside a small pouch on the belt buckle is a Linux-based control computer, a Wi-Fi communications system and a set of batteries that power the exoskeleton for over 2 hours.
Like Berkeley’s exoskeleton, Hal5 mimics the every move of its user: its weight is unnoticeable as it supports itself and you can easily leg-press 400 pounds. Nice…
The Linux-Based Human iRobot: Hal 5
What perhaps is most interesting, is the fact that you could see this prototype in action in a street near you.
As a report from spectrum confirmed:
"Japan, with almost half the world's nearly 1 million industrial robots, is likely to be the place where adoption of exoskeletons will first take hold. The country's rapidly aging population—one in four Japanese will be 65 or older by 2015—and its ambivalence toward admitting foreign laborers have created a shortage of caregivers, and some believe robotic-aided nursing care could be the solution."
Watch a video of HAL in action.
2. Sarcos' Exoskeleton
Perhaps one of the most impressive exoskeleton suits overall, the dexterity and brute force of this machine is incredible. The video in the next slide shows the subject lifting huge weights effortlessly and quickly – I bet a punch with the exoskeleton would knock you flat.
The Most Advanced Exoskeleton in the World: Sarcos' Exoskeleton
Yes, Sarcos’ exoskeleton is another DARPA funded project. The exoskeleton, much like the Berkeley suit, works much like a human nervous system. A complex set of sensors act as nerves and hydraulics act as muscle.
Watch a video of the Sarcos in action.
1. Real Life Halo Suit
I just couldn’t resist including this one. Although it isn’t technically bionic, it is the first ballistic proof exoskeleton. Yes, Troy Hurtubise, inventor of the bear proof suit and star of the documentary Project Grizzly, deliberately went out of his way again to create a Halo replica suit called the Trojan.
It has already withstood knives, bullets, light explosives and clubs. It weighs 40 pounds and is crafted out of high impact plastic, has ceramic bullet protection and ballistic foam. The exoskeleton has everything from places to put pepper spray, ingestible transponders, knife and gun holsters, to a device to record your last words.
Real Life Halo Exoskeleton: The Trojan
Troy’s dream is to have this suit deployed on battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. He claims that if any major military organisation takes him up on his offer, he can produce each suit for roughly $2000.
Watch a video of the suit and its inventor.
...And now for the suits that didn't make it
General Electric and the U.S. military co-developed an exoskeleton, named Hardiman, that made lifting 250 pounds feel like lifting 10 pounds. It was way too heavy, weighing in at 1,500 pounds, and only one arm worked, making it completely and utterly redundant.
In the mid 80s plans were drawn up for a full-body exoskeleton for the infantry, yet it remained firmly on the drawing board. Ten years later and a team of researchers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, even drew up plans to build a suit that resembled our favourite comic book hero, Iron man. However the plans never went forward... Sigh…
It wasn’t until after Y2K, that progress really picked up. With extra funds from DARPA and modern materials such as carbon fibre, US inventors have been doing wonders. Mind you, so have the Japanese.
If you want to find out all the latest news on the environment, why not subscribe to our RSS feed?