Know what would be awesome? Robotic exoskeletons, like the kind you see all the time in science fiction. Sounds like something way out of the reach of current technology, right?
Wrong. Engineers at the Perceptual Robotics Laboratory in Italy have developed a robotic exoskeleton known as the Body Extender. This device is powerful enough to carry another human with relative ease; its nature as an exoskeleton also means it’s well-suited as a protective shell.
The Body Extender has twenty-two degrees of freedom, each one with an electric motor. It’s made up of modular components, meaning it can be easily rebuilt to suit whatever application it’s used in, and the design of the device means it’s capable of tracking the movement of the human body with starting accuracy.
I wouldn’t expect to see this thing hitting consumer channels any time soon. Mass-production isn’t exactly feasible at the moment, as according to Percro Engineer Fabio Salsedo, it’s the most complex wearable robot in the world. As an added bonus, it also looks like something straight out of Alien.
According to Salsedo, the machine’s capable of lifting 50 kilograms in each of its hands, and can exert approximately ten times the force of the person inside. Basically, it imparts super strength to its users. Salsedo sees a number of different possible uses for the technology.
“If you have to assemble a complex product like an aircraft, this is a machine which is very flexible,” Salsedo explained to the BBC. “You can lift the panel, rotate it and position it in the right position. It could also be used in crisis scenarios, when you need something flexible in order to intervene rapidly without damaging the victim.”
The Body Extender might be the most complex exoskeleton on the market, but it’s far from the only one. Scores of companies are developing robotic augmentation for a whole host of different purposes. You’ve got the ReWalk, for example, which is designed to help the disabled walk upright, while Panasonic’s Powerloader can lift a total of 100 kilograms and Cyberdyne’s Hybrid Assistive Limb System is designed for rescue, recovery, and heavy lifting in the workplace. On the military side of things, Raytheon has the XOS 2 for field combat, while Lockheed Martin’s Hulc is a hydraulic exoskeleton that’ll allow soldiers to carry loads around 90 kilograms.
You get the idea. There’s a lot of them, designed for virtually every application you can dream of. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before we start seeing them in the real world. The Body Extender, for example, still has a problem with equilibrium, meaning there’s no guarantee it won’t keel over on uneven terrain.
According to Bristol Robotics Laboratory Director Professor Chris Melhuish, materials and power are currently the two biggest obstacles standing before the development of robotic exoskeletons, with suitable control systems as a close second.
“If you’re doing this and you don’t have access to sufficient power,” he explained to the BBC, “That’s a problem. If you can plug yourself into the mains it’s absolutely fine but then your movement is limited by an umbilical power supply.”
“The evolution of the exoskeleton,” he continued, “will go hand in hand with the evolution of batteries or other high density storage systems as well as lightweight structural materials.”
Not only that, there’s the matter of safety. All this talk about strength-enhancing augmentations is pretty awesome, but what happens if something goes wrong? We haven’t seen just what these things are capable of doing, both to their pilots and to the people around them. Until we do, we’d best approach the technology with caution – no matter how cool it looks.