However much this might sound like the plot of a bad science fiction movie, the rabbit hole goes deeper. The US Pentagon’s DARPA or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has invested $50 million in robotic exoskeleton projects.
The question to ask, then, is will we see a bionic army, roaming the battlefields of the future or will there be some unexpected twist?
No, I’m not about to prophesize an apocalyptic battle between man and machine (even though as a die-hard sci-fi fan, I think it would be kinda cool). No, brute force, contrary to popular belief is not limited to the realms of the military, but extends to the more mundane. The potential applications of powered suits are endless. Hydraulic limbs could assist people to walk, lift heavy equipment or rubble in rescue missions and aid in construction. Anything is possible after all.
So, without further ado, let’s explore some of the most incredible exoskeletons (in order of coolness) that may be seen on the battlefields of the future or helping us in our every day lives.
5. The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX)
The director of UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory Homayoon Kazerooni’s central aim was “to create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle.” The project, funded by DARPA, was, in 2004, the most advanced exoskeletal suit. It has subsequently been overtaken by others on the list however.
BLEEX: How does it work?
Much like a human nervous system surprisingly. There are a series of 40 sensors and hydraulic actuators, which form a local area network. The machine therefore is able to shadow the subject’s every move.
One challenge was designing the fuel-based power actuation system, vital for sustaining soldiers on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this hasn’t yet been perfected.
Watch a video of it in action.
4. The Landwalker Exoskeleton
At 3.4 meters tall and weighing in at 1000kg, this juggernaut looks like something out of Star Wars. It is in fact, a devilish mix of Japanese machinery and vision, from the robotics manufacturer Sakakibara-Kikai.
The Evil Juggernaut: The Landwalker
Unlike the UC Berkeley project, this exoskeleton is not anthropomorphic and not as intelligent. It sure looks cool though: it has a gun mounted on each side, which can currently only fire squishy pink balls, but given a bit of development time, this bad boy will scare the hell out of any soldiers on the battlefield. If you want to buy one, it’ll set you back 36 million yen, roughly US$345,000.
You can watch a test drive here.
3. Hal 5
HAL, short for Hybrid Assistive Limb, is not a war machine. In fact, it is designed to assist people who have difficulty walking or lifting heavy objects.
Hal5 is the latest in a series of robots designed by Dr. Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. The structure of the exoskeleton is composed of nickel and aluminum alloys, as well as a thick plastic casing. Inside a small pouch on the belt buckle is a Linux-based control computer, a Wi-Fi communications system and a set of batteries that power the exoskeleton for over 2 hours.
Like Berkeley’s exoskeleton, Hal5 mimics the every move of its user: its weight is unnoticeable as it supports itself and you can easily leg-press 400 pounds. Nice…
The Linux-Based Human iRobot: Hal 5
What perhaps is most interesting, is the fact that you could see this prototype in action in a street near you.
As a report from spectrum confirmed:
“Japan, with almost half the world’s nearly 1 million industrial robots, is likely to be the place where adoption of exoskeletons will first take hold. The country’s rapidly aging population—one in four Japanese will be 65 or older by 2015—and its ambivalence toward admitting foreign laborers have created a shortage of caregivers, and some believe robotic-aided nursing care could be the solution.”
Watch a video of HAL in action.