Brilliant Products

Robotic Exoskeletons Could Turn You Into Iron Man, Or Just Help You Walk Again

Excited for the August 21 eclipse? Visit our Eclipse 2017 page to explore the science, history, and myths of the event. The Curiosity team will be viewing the eclipse alongside NASA in Carbondale, Illinois. Follow us on Facebook for live videos, trivia, and interviews on the big day.

It's a staple of comic books: a powerful robot suit you can wear to achieve superhuman strength. It's also a thing that exists at this moment. A number of companies are hard at work developing and refining robotic exoskeletons that can do everything from creating armies of super soldiers to helping paralyzed patients walk again.

Related: A Robot Performed Soft-Tissue Surgery By Itself

Healing With Robots

Real-life superheroes are one thing, but where robotic suits show their biggest promise is in the medical field. In full-body designs or worn from the lower back or waist down, therapeutic exoskeletons use tiny motors attached to orthotics to help people who usually get around in wheelchairs control their joints and regain the ability to walk. For these people, getting around is only one benefit, since the ability to stand and move around also helps them prevent muscle atrophy, build strength, and boost blood circulation.

Related: You Can Correct This Robot's Mistakes Using Only Your Mind

The technology still has a way to go, according to Leslie Katz at CNET. The suits, she reports, "can be bulky, with a gait best described as robotic. Users can walk with them only on solid, level surfaces and need crutches for balance and support." Only a few companies have regulatory approval to sell consumer exoskeletons, and the machines can cost nearly six figures. Still, the ability to stand and walk around can mean everything for someone who spends their days in a wheelchair, whatever the price.

I Am Iron Man?

So what about those who can already walk? Is a real-life Iron Man on the horizon? Unfortunately, these exoskeletons won't turn you into a superhero, at least not in their current form. So far, every effort engineers have made to create a super-strong full-body exoskeleton have run into one big snag: the stronger the suit, the more power it needs, which requires a bigger battery and makes it heavier. A heavier suit consumes more power, creating a vicious cycle. That's what exoskeletons like Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics' HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) and Sarcos/Raytheon's XOS2 have encountered.

Related: Jason Barnes Drums With A Musically Programmed Robotic Hand

Instead, industrial and military efforts are focusing on making people's jobs easier, rather than making them superhuman. DARPA's Warrior Web exoskeleton is a lower-body device ("think heavy-duty Spanx for war," writes WIRED) that makes it easier for soldiers to march long distances and gathers data on their physical activity. Panasonic has been developing assistance suits that can help factory workers lift moderately heavy loads without stressing their lower backs, and is also testing one that may help people carry as much as 220 pounds. Robotic exoskeletons won't make us all superheroes, but they will certainly do what technology does best: make our lives easier.

Is there something you're curious about? Send us a note or email us at editors (at) curiosity.com. And follow Curiosity on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Robot Suits

Real Life Iron Man Suits

Share the knowledge!

Hyundai's Exo-Skeleton Makes Everyone an Iron Man

Could Iron Man Be A Reality?

If you liked this you'll love our podcast! Check it out on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music, SoundCloud, search 'curiosity' on your favorite podcast app or add the RSS Feed URL.

Advertisement