Iron Man vs. Invisible Chairs: Fighting for the Future of Robotic Exoskeletons

January 04, 2016
John Quinn

Human bodies are frail machines contrived of snapping sinew and breakable bones. We know this. Hell, we’re self-conscious about it. Since Dr. Edward E. Smith sprinkled electric exoskeletons into his sci-fi epics in the late ‘30s (inspiring Starship Troopers author Robert Heinlein) imagineers have been outfitting humanity with robosuits designed to give us strengths in keeping with our outsized imaginations. Like autonomous weapons and self-driving helicopters, robosuits are now a reality, but Dr. Smith’s vision seems increasingly foolish. We’re making ourselves stronger, but we’re not making ourselves into weapons — and we may give up the ghost on that effort before the decade ends.

Robotic exoskeletons currently exist in various stages of development and implementation. Most prototypes are designed to help with manual labor or to serve as medical aids for those suffering from mobility-limiting injuries — people like Mark Pollock, who was rendered paralyzed from the waist down by a spinal injury and can now walk with help from a leg mount produced by the robotics company Esko. These devices augment the abilities of people, allowing them to lift more than they could (even when that’s just themselves), but they do not add to those abilities. Iron Man waits in the wings.

The main obstacle preventing engineers from creating a suit capable of acting as a tank/plane/forward operating base is lag time, which is a minor issue for assembly line workers and a big issue for soldiers. The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, which the Department of Defense has been working on for two decades, has never been deployed. In October, General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command told CNN that “the TALOS program has churned out several prototypes and is on track to deliver a first-generation suit by August 2018.” That’s hard to believe — just ask the private sector.

According to a new report from ABI Research, which predicts the commercial exoskeleton market will be worth $2 billion by 2025. “Lower body exoskeletons, employed as rehabilitation tools or quality of life enablers, currently lead the sector,” ABI said in a statement on their findings. “However, commercial systems that augment or amplify capabilities will exhibit the strongest growth moving forward. This is especially true for industrial tasks requiring heavy lifting, extended standing, squatting, bending or walking in manufacturing facilities, particularly within construction and agriculture industries.”

One of the most impressive exoskeletons on the market comes from Cyberdyne, a Japanese company that happens to share a name with the Terminator prime mover. Their Hybrid Assisted Limb device comes in several models, some for medical use and some for laborers. This summer, Cyberdyne announced a pilot program at Haneda Airport to outfit some workers with lumbar-supporting robo-skeletons to make lifting luggage easier, citing Japan’s aging population and low birth rates as two issues they hope to address by easing physical stress from manual labor. Another promising application of exoskeletons comes from Noonee, a company based in Switzerland that makes a product called the “chairless chair.” They’ve had a trial run at an Audi manufacturing plant, and they reportedly have plans for a trial run with BMW. Workers strap braces to their legs that allow them to sit comfortably wherever they’re standing, like they’re sitting on an invisible seat.

There’s a growing market for simpler, unpowered exoskeletons as well. A new knee brace from manufacturer Spring Loaded promises to reduce fatigue and prevent knee injuries in athletes and the elderly.

To read the rest of this article, published in Inverse, please click here.