Ironman. The load lifter from Aliens. The combat jackets from Edge of Tomorrow. The exoskeleton from Elysium.
Powered exoskeleton suits are speckled all across science fiction. And that’s just Hollywood. Delve into written science fiction, like Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space, and they’re all over the place. They even exist in video games. Fans of the Fallout video game series (seriously, if you are not, you should be) know that Power Armor is pretty much the penultimate weapon/defensive system. Besides increasing strength and endurance, scifi power armor provides plenty of other benefits.
For all practical purposes, we’re not talking about Tony Stark’s version here. Most scifi power armor doesn’t fly. But it is, usually, heavily armored against small arms fire. That means that your average handguns and smaller rifles can’t do too much damage, if any. The suits can also provide NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection.
And while these suits are fantastic on screen and on the page, they’re pretty damn amazing in real life too.
For those who don’t know, researchers and engineers all around the world are actually working on various kinds of powered exoskeleton suits for quite a while. Nerdist had a recent article that covered them in amazing detail, including Raytheon’s XOS 2, the HAL 5 and the HULC.
But if we’re not fighting aliens or supervillains or trying to battle our way to the giant space-ring suburbia, what do we really need an exosuit for? Besides the fact that they’re freakin’ cool…
Current exosuits have three main purposes: Medical, Industrial and Military.
These are designed to help people who are disabled in some way, making movement extremely difficult, if not impossible. The HAL 5 (Human Assistive Limb 5) is a good example of this use. This unite was designed and is built by Cyberdyne (Yes, that’s their actual name, and no, they don’t make Terminators). Another model is the ReWalk, the first exoskeleton cleared by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration. The ReWalk is a more modest step forward, pun not intended, but no less important.
The industrial models are made to let workers carry heavy loads and move them in precise ways. Korean tech company Daewoo already has prototypes in development and in testing. They currently have a model being tested, the RoboShipbuilder, at its Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering facility in Okpo-dong, south Korea. The unit can support its own weight and the users, plus an additional 30 kg (66 lbs). That may not seem like a lot at first, but carrying that kind of load all day is pretty much superhuman in of itself. Besides, the final model is expected to be able to handle up to 100 kg (220 lbs).
I am Ironman. Actually, military exosuits are not quite that exciting. Currently, they are designed with the specific purpose of making human soldiers be able to carry more and last longer in the field. The XOS 2 gives the user a 17:1 strength ratio, making fifty pounds feel like three.
While Ironman’s suit provides an extreme level of protection as well as increased strength, we’re not quite there yet. In only 2012, the XOS and HULC models were just passing the proof of concept phase. And while Tony Stark likes to make dozens of new models between films, real technology progression is not quite as fast. We’ll get there though.
Like 3-d printing, stem cells and a host of other new techs, I think exosuits will create a real shift in dynamics for the military and medical sectors. These suits and prosthesis will only get more advanced and more attuned to what humans really want and need.
So as usual, the future is bright indeed. And probably a little terrifying too.