An exoskeleton is the external skeleton that supports and protects an animal’s body, in contrast to the internal skeleton of, for example, a human. In popular usage, some of the larger kinds of exoskeletons are known as “shells”.
The powered exoskeleton has been a go-to special effect in science-fiction films from “Aliens” to “Avatar.” And it’s one area of technology where the science and the fiction aren’t too far apart. Several exoskeleton systems are already in use or in active development in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Many are designed for medical use aiding the disabled, and some have emergency response or military applications.
When you think of exoskeletons, you probably don’t think “cheap,” but $4,200? People spend more than that for high-end gaming computers. Cyberdyne is gearing up to mass produce 400 of its “Hybrid Assistive Limb” exoskeletons annually, selling first to interests in Japan, and then perhaps the rest of the world. The company intends the suit less for personal interest and more for “rehabilitation support and physical training support in medical field, ADL support for disabled people, heavy labour support at factories, and rescue support at disaster sites, as well as in the entertainment field.” But, hey, if the market exists, Cyberdyne will ramp up production and who knows? Maybe all of us will be running around in our very own exoskeletons.
Lockheed Martin is putting an updated, ruggedized version to its HULC Robotic Exoskeleton through lab evaluation tests. The hydraulic “power-suit” now boasts better protection from the elements, improved fitting and easier adjustment, increased run-time and new control software. One of several exoskeletons in development for both military and civilian applications, the HULC (short for Human Universal Load Carrier) is designed to augment soldiers’ strength and mobility over rough terrain. It’s a modular system made up of an over-the-shoulder backpack unit which transfers weight of up to 200 lbs (combined front and back) through a titanium lower-body exoskeleton. On foot, soldiers wearing the device can run at 7 mph with 10 mph bursts and at slower speeds, a range of around 12 miles is possible.
Berkeley bionics has just unveiled an artificially intelligent human exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk. ‘eLEGS’ is a wearable bionic device that uses a gesture-based human-machine interface to determine the users gestural intentions and then acts accordingly. utilizing a series of sensors, a real-time computer draws on the user’s input information to facilitate every aspect of a single stride.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s inspirational words from 1963 “some people see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask, why not?” If we can dream it, we can imagine it. If we can imagine it, we can invent it. If we can invent it, we can put it to good use.