A Softer Touch: Future Exoskeletons

Let’s all take a second to imagine what it would be like to fly around in Iron Man’s suit. To watch the bullets bounce off your amour and retaliate with a simple raising of your hand. It’s pretty cool, right? And no doubt a huge tactical advantage in almost any combat situation.

Unfortunately that exact image is firmly stuck in the world of superheroes right now, but it hasn’t stopped the human race from trying. Surprisingly, the idea of a human-enhancing exoskeleton isn’t that new, and the earliest attempt to develop one was as far back as the 1960s.

The first was known as “Hardiman”, the development of which was funded by the US office of naval research. This suit weighed a whopping 680 kg so  it wasn’t all that successful, as that weight would have probably done the exact opposite of any form of enhancement. But improvements were made, and a new design appeared in 2000 once the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began funding research of this nature.

The results involved a variety of high-tech metal leg braces, one of which evolved into one of the more well known examples. This was the Human Universal Load Carrier, which conveniently abbreviates to HULC to make it sound even more bad-ass. Despite an appropriate name this one didn’t work out too well either, with tests showing that users were more exhausted than enhanced. But they weren’t ready to give up just yet, and an updated version was tested again in 2011.

So how did this one work out? Third time’s the charm, right?! Wrong. While I’m sure there were some improvements, it seemed that the problem of hindering rather than helping was encountered yet again. We have a little more information on the problems this time, which included the users heart rate jumping by 26% and O2 consumption rising by 39%. Doesn’t seem like much of an enhancement to me.

Despite the many failures, the idea of the bulky, rigid exoskeleton still hasn’t died, with current US military research focussing on a new design known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS). The name alone gives an image of what they’re going for, relating to the metal giant from Greek mythology who effortlessly circled the island of Crete three times a day. While information is hard to come by, what I’ve read indicates a design similar to HULC.

But some scientists are skeptical that this heavy, rigid, hard-bodied design will ever succeed, claiming that it works against the natural biomechanics of the body. This would certainly explain the poor results obtained so far. If the users have to actively work against the exoskeleton in order to move, then all it becomes is an overly complex exercise machine. So how could the design change to overcome these problems?

That question is answered by some researchers at Harvard University, who are developing a softer alternative. Literally. The “Soft Exosuit” they are working on is made of fabric rather than metal, and is worn like a regular pair of trousers. This already prevents the suit hindering natural movement, and by using flexible cables and motors it can provide each step with an additional burst of energy.

This new technology has already proven promising in lab environments, with recent tests indicating that users were on average 7% more efficient while using the suit. The researchers also report that people feel they are walking slower and that footwear feels heavier once the exosuit is turned off. “People feel like they’re walking in mud” says Ignacio Galiana, an engineer working on the project.

Although results are promising the team are carefully avoiding unrealistic expectations, as the design is not without its problems. For example, the suit is currently programmed for walking, not running, and there are some flaws associated with movement over uneven terrain. They also mention that some people adapt better than others, so the benefits may not be consisted between users.

Nevertheless, this is a great first step along what appears to be the correct path this time, and the more comfortable design allows for some applications outside the military. This could be used to help people with disabilities regain the ability to walk to some degree, a service I’m sure many people would be grateful for.

So while we’re still a long way from the Iron Man suit, it seems we’ve found a more realistic alternative. Hopefully everyone will be able to own one these in the future. Superhuman race here we come!



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