Humans have been using mechanical advantages for thousands of years with pulleys and gears. When will we finally get to use the "real" mechanical advantage presented by superhuman exoskeletons? Let’s examine the technology currently out there and what's to come.
So, exoskeletons do exist today but are nowhere near the form that the days of science fiction past predicted. They are bulky devices that can amplify human capabilities, but otherwise are slow and have limited power and remote capabilities. Companies do already use exoskeletons for improving the capabilities of their workers. However, their use is mainly to combat strain from repetitive work rather than transforming workers into superhumans.
Raytheon has built a superhuman exoskeleton that amplifies worker’s capabilities. The device is fairly streamlined, but it is by no means minimalistic. It has to be hooked up to power and its response times are lacking at best. It still is certainly an exoskeleton, but one that frankly doesn’t have any real-world use.
The global exoskeleton market is growing as the technology reaches a point of viability. Grand View Research suggests that the entire market will be valued at 3.3 Billion USD by 2025. Whether it's manufacturing or warfighting, there is a significant need for exoskeleton technology. If there is so much need, then what is holding back mechanical engineers and designers from creating a functional and useable exoskeleton?
Both industries are vexed by roughly the same problem with exoskeleton design: they need to be comfortable for the operator to wear for extended periods of time but also be effective enough to make sense to wear in the first place.
This is a big engineering issue when you consider how much power is needed to power these exoskeletons at any given time.
When you look at the private industry, a significant portion of the exoskeletons currently developed are for one specific portion of the body. This is great for factory workers that do one singular repetitive task over and over. For example, workers who lift boxes all day can be aided by an exoskeleton that supports the legs upon lifting.
There are engineering innovations being made too, however. Some exoskeleton designs aim to harness the wearer's energy for charging when they are not utilizing the mechanics of the exoskeleton. This can potentially help mitigate frequent charging times.
Commercially, exoskeletons pose massive potential. Drawing back to the box lifting example, most labor instances focus around a joint on the body. For box-lifting, it's the knees. For pushing or arranging objects, it's the shoulders elbows. These are human's weakest points functionally, so exoskeletons, in general, will aim to beef up these regions of anatomy first.
Looking out longer-term, exoskeletons are moving from being just force machines for the human body and might transform into highly specific machines. For example, in theory, an exoskeleton could be programmed to train the user on how to play the piano or drums.
Powering the exoskeletons
By far the biggest thing keeping developers from the future of exoskeletons is the power source. Since Tony Stark’s arc reactor doesn’t exist, engineers are left to choose mainly from an array of batteries, based on practicality. The Cyberdyne HAL exoskeleton can run on battery power for nearly 3 hours. This is not an insignificant amount of time, but it would mean that one factory worker would need 2 exo-suits, or 3 battery charges, to get through a workday. This is a far cry from the functionality we might have hoped for. Packing as much juice as is needed into an exoskeleton to allow it to last the entire day just isn’t feasible given modern battery technology.
Ensuring exoskeleton safety
The other major problem with modern exoskeleton technology is found in safety controls. These are machines made to interface very directly with the human body. If something is done that causes a malfunction in the machine, serious injury could result to the user. This has left most larger exoskeletons relegated to laboratory studies.
There is no question that additive and generative design technologies will play a big part in the future of exoskeleton technology. Since reducing weight is a major factor in their design, organic latticing and generative structuring may help designs to interface more naturally with the human user.
Right now, the field of mechanical design has evolved to a point that the problems presented with exoskeletons are easily solved. As batteries continue to shrink and become capable of storing more power, the days of commercial lightweight exoskeletons may be upon us.
Exoskeletons enabling the disabled
We've spent a lot of time talking about how exoskeletons will help the able-bodied work better or faster. However, a huge portion of exoskeleton use lies in helping paralyzed people get up and walk again.
Since exoskeletons can essentially exponentially increase the power of human muscles, it also means that when a human has a lack of functioning human muscles, they can stand in place. Take a look at the video below that details one exoskeleton device that is allowing a disabled person to walk again.
Clearly, there is an extensive number of uses for functionally useful exoskeleton devices. Their development continues across the globe. While we are already starting to see certain exoskeleton devices being implemented in specific factory or lifestyle circumstances, there may come a time in the not-so-distant future where anyone can buy an exoskeleton.
Perhaps you could swing over to your local home goods store and pick one up to rent for the day while you finished up a home renovation project? The future seems bright for robotic exoskeletons, and I sure am excited to see what it brings.