Exoskeletons: Human Performance Augmentation
In a previous post about Steve Mann, we discussed cyborgs from the vantage point of augmented or mediated reality. However, part and parcel to this is superhuman strength or speed with the aid of robotic body parts or mechanized exoskeletons.
When prototypes of these technologies were first being realized in 1961, two years before Marvel Comics would release the first installment of the Iron Man series, they were coined under the term “man amplifiers” by inventor Neil Mizen at the Cornell Aeronautical Lab. In the 1980’s, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory designed the Pitman Suit for the Army Infantry but cost and technological speedbumps kept the product from being fully realized.
Then, in the late 1990’s, Japanese company Cyberdyne released the first generation Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) with the aim of helping the disabled and elderly with daily tasks. Cyberdyne turned down funding from the US and South Korea because they wanted to avoid military applications of the technology. The most recent version, HAL 5, is remarkably light, just 22 pounds in all, in contrast to the battery pack of the original HAL which weighed 40 pounds alone. HAL 5 is the only exoskeleton to have ever received a global safety certificate for worldwide use, awarded in 2013.
In the early 2000’s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, spent $75 million on developing Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation. Working with the company Sarcos, by 2005 the prototype, XOS, moved into the development stage. Steve Jacobsen, roboticist with Sarcos, invented a system of muscle sensors and hydraulic valves to detect body motion and provide powered assistance with tasks. Today’s XOS 2 suit enables soldiers to lift objects with an actual-to-perceived weight ratio of 17:1.
Thanks to the researchers at UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, for civilians the technology is a promise of mobility for those paralyzed either congenitally or through an accident. For more than a decade, lead researcher and mechanical engineering professor, Homayoon Kazerooni, has been striving to make this dream a reality.
Founding his own company, SuitX, Kazerooni has developed and released the Phoenix, which the UC Berkeley website describes as a “lightweight [exoskeleton that] has two motors at the hips and electrically controlled tension settings that tighten when the wearer is standing and swing freely when they’re walking. Users can control the movement of each leg and walk up to 1.1 miles per hour by pushing buttons integrated into a pair of crutches.”
The Phoenix is on the market at $40,000, which although seeming expensive, is relatively cheap when medical bills for spinal cord injuries and subsequent rehabilitation can cost upwards to $200,000, and specialized wheelchairs can reach prices of $10,000.