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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!


Why the EU matters for British Science.

With the referendum on Britain’s EU membership getting ever closer, there have been many arguments both for and against, but there seems to be one issue that is woefully underreported; the effect that it could have on British scientific research. So far, the science community has strongly aligned itself with the “in” camp, arguing that British research would suffer if the country were outside the EU, and the presidents of the Royal Society, both past and present, have all spoken up about the benefits of membership. But beneath all of this is once central concern; if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated.

Britain is currently a scientific powerhouse, producing 16% of the world’s highest quality research despite hosting just 1% of its population. But the reason for this excellence is that British scientists are able to collaborate with some of the best in the world, many of whom are working in other EU countries. Couple that with the fact that much of our research funding comes from the EU science budget, and you can see that leaving would massively damage this enterprise.

Those campaigning for a British exit of the EU have countered this argument by saying that leaving would mean some of the UK’s contribution to the EU budget could then be invested in research within the country. True, but the problem is that much of our research now involves collaboration with other EU scientists, which would be harmed. The UK’s increasingly networked nature has allowed it to truly excel in collaborative science, with more than 50% of UK research papers being international, compared to just 33% in the US. Papers with international teams of authors also have a much greater impact, with one-third of the best journal papers resulting from international collaborations.

The fact that we collaborate so much is extremely beneficial, as it is exactly what the EU science budget supports. The European Research Council funding requires projects to involve researchers from at least three different EU member (or associate) states, and some of the most prestigious and valuable research grants in Europe are awarded by this organisation. This funding not only helps launch the best British scientists on to the world stage, but such scientists have consistently earned more back in grants than the UK has contributed in every year this scheme has existed, receiving around £1.40 for every £1 that we contributed.

But this is not the only scheme we benefit from, as the EU Marie Slodowska-Curie mobility fellowships support and fund EU scientists to come to Britain as postdoctoral fellows, who are the main drivers of bench science in many disciplines. Through these fellowships, British labs were awarded €1 billion between 2007 and 2014. Again, we gained more money than we contributed, receiving nearly double the amount of Germany, the next best funded country.

All of this means that the EU directly pays for a huge amount of British scientific research and innovation, and because British science is of a very high quality, there is both net financial and scientific gain. We absolutely cannot afford to lose out on such successful source of EU funding, especially since research is usually a fairly low priority in the political arena.

Withdrawing from the EU would also affect how freely scientists can both enter and leave Britain, and success in science is heavily dependant on the movement of people, more so than most other disciplines. Results are not only exchanged formally by publication, but also discussed more directly by individuals in international networks, and scientists will frequently move countries to work in new labs and with new research teams. Strict visa regimes already limit many non-EU scientists from contributing to British science, and the idea that this could potentially extend to an even larger number of EU researchers is a frightening prospect.

The evidence should now be clear; if Britain leaves the EU, we would massively damage an enterprise we are becoming so well-known for.

But why should the voters care? How does investing in scientific research affect those who are not directly involved? Well it has been shown that such investment, through national and EU funding streams, yields historically proven economic returns. All while tackling important social challenges in areas such as healthcare, sustainability, and the environment.

By showing commitment to science funding, the UK can bring in excellent, internationally mobile scientists, engineers, and the industries that seek to employ them, which will give immediate gains through tax revenues and employment. This would also help attract more overseas students, who collectively contributed £5 billion in 2008/09. Couple this with the fact that nearly 30% of the UK’s GDP is produced by sectors involved in science and technology, and it becomes undeniable that this is good for the economy.

So, if Britain cares about science, and cares about maintaining its excellent reputation for research, then it needs the EU. But if Britain leaves, then our scientists will be left stranded on this island, without influence or funding, and begin fading into obscurity.