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Powered Exoskeletons


As some readers will know, I have a great interest in prosthetics and other aids that help people to overcome barriers due to their being in some way different. Recently I wrote articles about prosthetic limbs, interviewed the World record holding runner Martina Caironi and looked at canes for the blind. Many posts ago I looked at elective amputation, and today I would like to cast my gaze over exoskeletons.

Companies have now started to produce powered exoskeletons in various forms, for both military and civilian use. Dual use technology has also always been of interest to me for some time, as it is difficult to see how we could draw a line between civilian use and development and military use. If we think that most robot limb and hand developments are geared towards treating soldiers who have been injured while on active service, then we see why the military is the largest investor in such research.

If we take the powered exoskeleton the link is more obvious. The military want an armoured exoskeleton that supports itself (so the soldier does not have to carry the weight) that can enable said soldier to carry more ammunition and supplies, heavier weaponry and move quicker and for a longer period of time.

Robocop comes to mind. But one thing is for sure, the FDA recently gave approval for the sales of the first exoskeleton in the USA, and you can also get one if you live in Europe or parts of the Middle East (at a cost of about $65,000), and so they will soon be seen on the streets.

And there are also many applications in hospital. The machines are used to get people walking again who have had accidents, to build up muscle and to aid other forms of rehab such as balance loss. Who could say that technology that allows someone to walk again after years in a wheelchair is a bad thing?

Exoskeleton in Medical Use
Exoskeleton in Medical Use


Well there are actually some arguments related to this. Many of the following are taken from an article called Exoskeletons in a disabilities context: the need for social and ethical research , written by Jathan Sadowski of Arizona State University and available here (payment required).

One problem is that creating the model of how it is correct to move and “be”, makes the non acceptability of alternatives worse. To give an example, the more technology works towards making us all walk upright, as many humans do, the more those who do not walk upright become marginalized. Society does not change to incorporate the differences, but moves to “rectify” the differences, as if it was just a problem to be solved. This may not be the right approach. This wonderful article by Jenny Davis explains all.

Another possible problem is dependence. If a person has access to such a machine they may grow to be dependent upon it. What happens if they lose the use of the machine? If they can no longer afford it, or it is withdrawn, or breaks down? With dependency comes withdrawal, and we might imagine that it would be serious cold turkey in this case. And all this comes without mention of the problem of availability to all. These systems are not cheap.

There are many industrial applications that relate to the needs for the soldiers above, allowing workers to carry heavy objects for long periods of time, or use heavier machinery, something that could on the surface be seen as little more than an advancement in industrialized production methods. This kind of technology would be fantastic for disaster workers too, as well as fire fighters and people working in remote areas or difficult to access spaces.

Here are a couple of links that you might be interested in. This Forbes video shows the development of a new military exoskeleton, once more explaining its civilian use. This TED talk is a little older, showing the development of the same project. Neither has any critical view of the technology however, and the TED talk almost looks like publicity.

In some of the cases above the use of this technology could undoubtedly be described as human enhancement. In others some would say that it is something more akin to a mechanical wheelchair that improves mobility. But one thing is for sure, as Sadowski point out in the article cited above, “any serious consideration – whether critique, condemnation, or support – of enhancement technologies must also incorporate critical inquiry about ethics, politics, justice, and social relations”.

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Are bionic suits a thing of fantasy or the future?

This is Technology Bloggers 100th article!
Well done and thank you to our 16 fantastic writers who have made this possible. Also thanks to all our readers and commenters for your support.
Lets aim for 1,000 now!

So, to the article! Everyone has heard of Iron Man – well I would think they have. The idea that such a suit could become a reality, is well… fiction. Until now!

A technology company called Raytheon has developed an exoskeleton, designed to effectively act as a bionic/robotic suit. The suit is designed to perfectly mimic and aid human actions, so the wearer can feel normal whilst performing tasks that they could never achieve without the aid of the suit.

One way of thinking about how it feels is to think of the power steering in a car. Without the power steering it can be really tough to turn the wheel, activate the power steering however and the car still feels normal and responds in the same way, the difference is, minimal effort is required to do a rather demanding task.

Doing press-ups in a bionic suit with ease
Performing everyday tasks is easy when wearing a bionic exoskeleton!

The suite has the potential to be fitted with some sort of amour plating, to protect the individual form attack – assuming it were to be used in a war-zone, and not in industry! D3O could actually make it a pretty invincible suit!

The suite can help the wearer lift up to 17 times what they could normally life, making tasks 17 times easier! A massive positive is that it doesn’t restrict the wearers range of motion, meaning that they can more freely and normally.

There is a problem though. The suit has to be attached to an external power source, as it guzzles power like crazy. Current batteries are either too weak, or too dangerous. For example, lithium-ion batteries can’t be strapped to a human, as they are prone to explosion if they get damaged!

A lack of power makes the suit extremely heavy, meaning that every movement becomes more difficult. This means that if there is a loss of power, the suit is hindering, rather than helping the occupant.

Aside from the lack of power, the main difference between the suit Raytheon have developed and Tony Stark’s suit is that Tony Stark’s can fly. Stark’s suit is also loaded with flairs, missiles and weapons galore, and has Stark’s supercomputer Jarvis running the interface. Raytheon’s suit is still in the early stages though, and no doubt will soon catch up 😉

Four Iron Man Suits
Tony Stark’s collection of Iron Man suits

If you want to know more about this super cool invention read CNN’s article about it.