Called an exoskeleton, the technology and equipment are increasingly being put to use in the real world. SuitX also expects the body armour to go mainstream.
SuitX founder and University of California’s Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory director Homayoon Kazerooni said: “There is no doubt in my mind that these devices will eventually be sold at hardware stores. As the prices come down, you’ll be able to simply buy them at Home Depot.”
The term exoskeleton simply means an external device that supports and protects its user, providing higher levels of strength and endurance. Also called “wearable robots”, these exoskeletons can either be equipped with springs and dampeners or battery-powered and computer-operated, while featuring motors and hydraulics.
Accenture technology expert Adrian Spragg said: “Integrating humans and machines into one system opens up a new realm of opportunity. Many of the early applications have been focused on military and medical applications, but in the last several years there’s been an explosion of use in a range of cases.”
This rapid expansion in the technology has seen an increase in use of exoskeletons by manufacturing workers. Slowly, consumer versions are also being developed to assist people with many tasks, such as walking, climbing stairs, DIY and other such mundane activities.
A study by ABI Research estimates global exoskeleton revenues to rise from $392m in 2020 to $6.8bn in 2030.
Kazerooni added: “The primary benefit of the firm’s exoskeletons is to prevent muscle fatigue. We’ve shown that muscle activity in the back, shoulder and knees drops by 50%. If muscle activities drop, that means the risk of muscle injury is less. This means that factory or plant managers get more productivity, their insurance costs are lower, and there are less workdays lost to injury. There’s less cost and more productivity.”
According to the BBC, the “suits” are now being tested by car manufacturers Fiat and General Motors.
General Motors is also contemplating the use of a battery-powered exoskeleton glove, called Iron Hand, invented by Swedish firm Bioservo.
Each finger of the glove has been installed with sensors and motors, which automatically respond to the level of force applied by the wearer when gripping or lifting something. As a result, the glove takes up some of the strain.
BioServo claims that the glove can increase the wearer’s hand strength by 20% for extended periods, reports the BBC.
MyPlanet chief executive Jason Cottrell said: “The world is only just beginning to understand the potential for exoskeleton technology. The implications are, in a word, enormous. Labour-intensive industries like manufacturing and agriculture have always depended on a workforce that must endure a certain level of physical exhaustion and risk.
MyPlanet is a Canadian software firm, which has organised surveys on the use of exoskeletons.
Cottrell added: “Devices that support a person’s frame while doing their job will fundamentally change how the industries run.”
Cottrell also cited the example of Delta Airlines trying out a full-body exoskeleton made by Utah-based Sarcos Robotics. The powered suit, which is being tested by Delta’s freight-handling, maintenance and ground support staff, is able to lift nearly 90kg of cargo for eight hours at a time.
The more advanced versions of such body armour come equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) computer systems.
Oxford University senior research fellow in AI Sandra Wachter said: “Such body suits are to be welcomed, but with some caution. In general, I see this development as very positive for occupational health and safety. Machines are supposed to help us with dull, dangerous and dirty jobs. Robotics that protect your shoulders, your back and head, for example when you’re picking up or moving things, is crucial. This is exactly one of the exciting benefits of robotics.
“Problems, however, arise if robotics also doubles as workplace surveillance. Are these suits tracking your movements, how fast you move, and how often you take breaks? Does a system compare this data with those of other workers to score or rank them? What happens if you move slower than others, or take breaks more often?”
However, currently, exoskeleton technology has still not reached the widespread adoption stage due to factors such as battery capacity, limited motion range, and cost.
Spragg stated: “The average cost [of a full-body exoskeleton] is around $45,000. However, with economies of scale and technological maturity, prices will come down.”
SuitX is now working on a device that supports the wearer’s knee.
“It’s not only for people who are going climbing and hiking, or younger people who want to be more adventurous, or for people who want to do more walking and climbing but not hurt their knees. It’ll be for all ages. It’s simply giving you a little boost.”