The idea of harnessing robotic strength to supplement our own bodies’ comparative feebleness has long been a staple of science fiction and comic books. Everyone who’s seen James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi action classic Aliens remembers the scene where Ripley climbs inside an industrial power loader to level the playing field while taking on the queen alien. In Iron Man, Tony Stark invents a powered exoskeleton armor that gives him superhuman powers.
Of course, what looks cool on the screen isn’t always possible in real life. Flying armor and machines that make you strong enough to fight giant aliens may still elude us for now, but a handful of companies have started making impressive advances in exoskeleton technology that may not give construction workers superpowers, but could make their jobs a whole lot easier.
For now, so-called passive exoskeleton systems are getting the most widespread use.
For now, so-called passive exoskeleton systems are getting the most widespread use. They require no power source, are lighter than their powered counterparts, and considerably cheaper. Passive exoskeletons use wires and counterweights to take the strain of heavy lifting off workers and distributing the load to a harness like body-worn metal and carbon-fiber frame. These systems let workers wield heavy tools or other objects as if they were almost weightless, and obviously cost significantly less than their powered counterparts.
Home improvement retail giant Lowe’s recently tested exoskeletons for employees tasked with stocking shelves and lugging heavy items around in a Christiansburg, Virginia store. The suits contain carbon-fiber shafts that run the length of a worker’s back and thighs, storing energy as they bend to pick something up. The rods straighten as the worker stands, releasing the stored energy, similar to how a bow releases energy when an arrow is fired, as accessibly described by CNN. The test program was part of a collaboration with nearby Virginia Tech.
The rods straighten as the worker stands, releasing the stored energy, similar to how a bow releases energy when an arrow is fired.
Korean automaker Hyundai made waves last year when it announced it was working on a 110-pound powered exoskeleton it says will let workers lift hundreds of pounds with ease, according to Car and Driver. Hyundai says it plans to commercialize the decidedly futuristic-looking suits for military applications, physical therapy facilities and of course, factories.
Hyundai isn’t the only car manufacturer who sees the promise of exoskeleton technology. Ford just announced a partnership with Northern California-based Ekso Bionics on a pilot program using an upper-body exoskeleton device called the EksoVest to help reduce worker fatigue while performing repetitive jobs or other tasks requiring heavy tools to be hoisted above the worker’s head for long periods. Ford said its assembly line workers lift their arms overhead an estimated 1 million times per year, and that it hopes using exoskeletons will reduce repetitive stress injuries on the job.
SuitX, a robotics company out of the University of California, Berkeley recently launched its own modular exoskeleton that can be used in pieces or together depending which part of the body you need to strengthen. The so-called MAX system is made up of three discrete exoskeleton modules, the backX, shoulderX and legX (you can probably guess which component is worn where.) The company says lab tests show the MAX system reduces necessary muscle exertion by as much as 60 percent. The MAX even won two Saint Gobain Nova Innovation Awards “for its intelligent design, effectiveness, affordability, outstanding ergonomic features and ease of use,” according to the company. Together, all three modules will set you back around $11,000.
The company says lab tests show the MAX system reduces necessary muscle exertion by as much as 60 percent.
Repetitive twisting, lifting and bending is an inseparable part of any physical labor-intensive job. Over time it puts serious wear and tear on the body, but that can be curbed significantly with a little help from a metallic skeleton putting an innovative spin on basic weight balancing and energy distribution. The future really is now.
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