An Indian College Student Built A Working Iron Man Costume – But It Cost Much Less Than You Think

Image: YouTube/TEDx Talks

With technology improving every day, certain engineers are able to develop and create some ambitious projects. Indian student Vimal Govind Manikandan can certainly attest to that, as he built a working Iron Man costume in 2016. However, while the suit was capable of lifting over 300 pounds in weight, the cost of putting it together was much less than expected.

Image: YouTube/Vimal Govind

A resident of Kerala, India, Manikandan was in his last year studying Mechanical Engineering at Calicut University in 2016. In September 2015 though, he unveiled an intriguing project to the public. The student had built a large, mechanically-powered exoskeleton prototype known as “Generation 1,” resembling the kind of robotic suit that you’d see in a futuristic sci-fi movie.

Image: YouTube/Vimal Govind

Surrounded by a curious crowd, Manikandan showed what his bulky suit could do, before uploading the results to YouTube. The subsequent video, titled “Generation 1 Robotic Technology,” was posted in September 2015 and has earned over 57,000 views since then. However, the following year the student decided to refine his ambitious prototype.

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Known as the “G2 Robot,” this second prototype was much smaller than the first, running off battery-powered air chambers. Aesthetically, though, the suit had a very distinctive look. Indeed, Manikandan’s exoskeleton resembled the Iron Man suit belonging to one Tony Stark from the incredibly popular superhero film franchise.

Image: YouTube/The Quint

However, that resemblance proved to be a very deliberate choice by the student. “English [language] fiction movies were [the] source of my inspiration,” Manikandan said in a YouTube video posted by The Quint, an Indian news website, in August 2016. “And I developed this suit.”

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While the prototype boasted similar colors to that of the Stark creation, though, his work was hugely inspired by another hit Hollywood movie. James Cameron’s Avatar was a massive success back in 2009, becoming the highest-grossing film in worldwide box-office history. The sci-fi epic was renowned for its groundbreaking visual effects at the time but one thing in particular caught Manikandan’s eye.

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Just as for his 1986 classic Aliens, Cameron also created an iconic-looking exoskeleton suit for Avatar, known as the AMP or Amplified Mobility Platform. That design served as significant inspiration for Manikandan, as engineer looked to make something similar in real life with the “Generation 1” and “G2 Robot” prototypes.

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With that in mind, the second prototype cost just $750 to produce, much less than one might expect when looking at it. The exoskeleton itself weighed around 220 pounds and was capable of lifting in excess of 300 pounds in weight. A fellow engineering student at Calicut University tested the suit following its construction and gave some interesting feedback.

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“I can’t run and I can’t walk too fast,” test pilot Abhijit Ajitkumar said in the video. “Everything else is under control.” Despite the exoskeleton’s low cost, though, Manikandan and his team looked to reduce their financial outlay even further, with Assistant Professor Padmakumar explaining the money situation.

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“There is a lot of research being done in this field,” Padmakumar said in the video. “The mechanical powered exoskeleton is the best. Due to that mechanical feedback system, we have reduced the cost.” Following the prototype’s construction, Manikandan then shared his team’s work on a much grander scale.

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The students presented their exoskeleton at a Mechanics and Manufacturing conference in the summer of 2016, hosted by the Asia Society of Researchers. Of the 13 projects on show, Manikandan’s “G2 Robot” was selected as the best. However, despite that, he and his colleagues continued to look at ways to improve the prototype.

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Taking Ajitkumar’s feedback on board, the team’s priority was to make the suit easier to walk in, as its weight could cause potential problems for future users. As for the exoskeleton’s eventual use, Manikandan had a very clear view, suggesting that it could be manufactured for the military.

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“The future of this product [is] mainly in defense,” Manikandan told online news channel AJ+ in August 2016. “[As well as] industrial weight-lifting, material handling, etc.” Meanwhile, a month earlier, the student also saw one of his papers published in the International Journal of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics Research.

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After gaining some considerable attention from the engineering sector, Manikandan was then selected to give a talk at the TEDx Pune event in September 2017. His presentation focused on the exoskeleton prototype, explaining how it could be used in the various situations that its creator had outlined the year before.

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However, Manikandan also suggested another potential use. “We can use this technology for rehabilitation,” he told the audience. “If somebody lost their leg or if they have a limp. What we can do is, we can take the electric signal from their brain, which is coming through their neural network, and decode what they are trying to do with the disabled part of their body.”

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“[Then] we can assist them from outside,” Manikandan continued. “That’s really promising, because we are trying to fill the gap between disability and ability.” From there, the engineer offered several other possible uses for the exoskeleton, including elder care and medical therapy. When speaking about the latter, the robotics fan gave a detailed explanation of his plans.

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“[The medical field] is very complex, but we have a team of Indian engineers and Taiwan engineers working on making affordable, medical exoskeletons for common people,” Manikandan told the audience. “I think we can come up with that product in the next year.”

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Manikandan then spoke of the dangers posed by technology and robotics taking away people’s jobs, suggesting that his exoskeleton suits could solve the problem. “That’s our mission,” he concluded. “We are trying to stop a war, or a rise of machines, with another machine.”

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Thanks to his love of Hollywood action movies, Indian student Vimal Govind Manikandan was inspired to create something in their image. However, his Iron Man-style exoskeleton suit wasn’t built to enact the wild adventures of Tony Stark. Instead, he’s looking to share his affordable technology with those who need it most.

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