Wearable Robots (Exoskeletons)
By: Robert Frakes
What are Wearable Robots?
Wearable robots are people-oriented robots designed to be worn. These robots are designed around the function and shape of the human body and the human will be able to control the robotic limbs. This control can assist in walking, running, jumping higher or even lifting objects one would not normally be able to lift. Those examples are only some of the most basic ways that engineers hope these robots will be used for. They hope they can use these robots to assist in medical care as well as in the military. These exoskeletons could help to protect soldiers, lighten the weight they must carry while also allowing them to move quicker.
The first attempt to create a powered exoskeleton came in the 1960s. General Electric was the first mover into this field of exoskeletons. The Hardiman was created by General Electric with the intention of being used for bomb loading on aircraft carriers and underwater as well as space construction. Unfortunately for General Electric, by 1970 only one arm had been created. This arm could lift 750 pounds, but itself weighed almost three quarters of a ton. Each attempt they made to create a leg that could easily be lifted failed and The Hardiman was soon dismissed from the developmental world.
Uses in Pop Culture
After the brief appearance of The Hardiman into the worlds eyes, years passed where we only witnessed these exoskeletons in cartoons, anime and movies. The anime series, Mobile Suit Gundam, from the late 70s, began what has now become a passionate fascination with robotic exoskeletons. Followed by the feature film Aliens in 1986, where Sigourney Weaver used a large exoskeleton to defend herself from and fight the incoming Aliens. However, in 1987, we began seeing the use of the exoskeleton in real life return to the forefront of technology.
Monty Reed, a former Army Ranger who was paralyzed after a night parachute jump went awry, began work on the Lifesuit. While reading Starship Troopers, Reed had the idea for the suit which would allow others who were paralyzed to potentially walk again. The Lifesuit is intended to allow passive movements to the legs which will prevent spasticity. Funding is still needed to allow Reed to test his product out on patients but he refuses to give up his faith.
Wearable robots are most definitely a disruptive technology. If and when these exoskeletons are put into use in the medical and/or military fields, we will see life-altering changes to everyone involved. They are improving upon the field of prosthetics. If a person is in an accident and loses an arm or a leg, they could get a prosthetic arm or leg. The exoskeleton may one day be able to replace this prosthetic arm by connecting a robotic arm which would connect to the neurons in your brain which would then allow you to control the arm as if it were your own.
DARPA, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is funding a $50 million project known as Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation. The DARPA program hopes to allow soldiers to carry larger weapons, protect against enemy fire or chemical attack, provide stamina and allow for more food, water, ammunition and field supplies to be brought along. It is even believed that one day exoskeletons may be programmed to bring injured soldiers back to base by themselves. These exoskeletons will rely on hydrocarbon or chemical fuels which will allow the soldiers to independently control the robot in the field
Sarcos Research Company
Sarcos Research Corporation, a Salt Lake City robotics and medical device manufacture, has been funded by DARPA and is creating the Wearable Energetically Autonomous Robots, or WEAR for short. WEAR is designed for on-field combat and include a base of arms, legs and torso. Using complex and innovative kinematic systems, this base can mimic human movement while also storing energy, power systems, actuators and everything needed for an autonomous wearable robot. This exoskeleton can be controlled by the human while inside of it but will also work on its own when the human needs to step out of it, becoming a soldier of its own.
Military Benefits of an Exoskeleton
The exoskeleton will protect a soldier from enemy fire by repelling bullets. It will also allow the soldier to do more without getting as tired. This will increase the soldiers efficiency which should allow us to decrease the amount of soldiers used which in turn would of course prevent the casualties of many soldiers. If the advancements are made, an exoskeleton may even be able to carry a wounded soldier back to base, once again possibly preventing the death of a soldier. You cannot measure the importance of a human life and these wearable robots should be able to prevent us from having to when it comes to the military.
Medical Benefits of the Exoskeleton
Jacob Rosen, an associate professor of computer engineering in the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is trying to use his expertise to defeat biomedical problems. He hopes to help people who are disabled by degenerative diseases or stroke. According to Rosen, "People with muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular disabilities could use the exoskeleton to amplify their muscle strength, and it could also be used for rehabilitation and physical therapy."
Rosens Challenges and Projects
He believes that one of the major challenges in this field is that of creating a bio-port between the human and the exoskeleton. "By using the body's own control signals as input to the exoskeleton, you can achieve a natural control of the robot by the human operator as an extension of his or her body," Rosen said. Rosens research focuses primarily on medical robotics and the interface and interaction between the humans and robots. Two things separate Rosens prototype from that of others. One, the exoskeleton can reach 95% of the natural range of motion of the human arm. The second part, which is still actively being researched, is the method for using neurological signals to control the exoskeleton.
Assistance in Physical Therapy
The idea of the exoskeleton being used in physical therapy will help speed up the recovery time because the patient wont have to rely on pre-determined hours set forth by a physical therapist. They can work on their recovery at their own pace, which in most cases would be faster than the pace they would have if they needed to follow a specific regimen set forth by a physical therapist.
Haptic technology provides an interface with the user through the sense of touch, and using the exoskeleton as a haptic device has many applications in scientific visualization and manipulation, gaming, and simulation. Haptic feedback is also needed in surgical robotics to give the surgeon a sense of touch as he operates the robot from a separate console that may be located in a remote site. This advancement would help in making an envisioned fully autonomous operating room become reality. The goal is to one day allow a surgeon to control an exoskeleton from outside the operating room. They believe the exoskeleton would be able to see things that the surgeon may not be able to see from his vantage point if he were to be doing the surgery alone. While some people argue that it is unnecessary to create something to replace something that isnt flawed, Rosen believes, Sometimes you have to provide the tool first, and then people discover how they can use it.
Exoskeletons in development
The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, or BLEEX, was being created to allow an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle, according to the Director of UC Berkeleys Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, Homayoon Kazerooni. In 2004, BLEEX was the most advanced exoskeleton, but since then has been overtaken by competitors.
The Landwalker Exoskeleton was created by Japanese Robotics Manufacturer Sakakibara-Kikai. It stands at 3.4 meters tall and weighs an astonishing 1000 kilograms. With guns held at each size, this mammoth of a robot would be intimidating to any soldier on the battlefield.
The HAL5, short for hybrid assistive limb, is used for civilian life and is meant to help people who have trouble walking or lifting objects. Created by Dr. Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, it is made of nickel and aluminum alloys, along with a thick plastic casing. With 25% of Japan being over the age of 65 by 2015, this technology is likely to be seen in the streets of Japan in less than a decade. The HAL5 mimics every move of its user while weighing so little it is unnoticeable.
This exoskeleton is called the Trojan and is being worked on by inventor Troy Hurtubise. The Trojan is less intellectually advanced than the other exoskeletons mentioned above but physically it has no competition. It is the first ballistic proof exoskeleton. It has so far been able to stop bullets, knives, clubs and light explosives. The Trojan has an intake fan and an exhaust fan in the helmet to keep the soldier from becoming overheated. It also has a centered laser pointer that can be used when a soldier spots a sniper. He can call back and tell his men to follow the dot and fire which would easily allow for the sniper to be taken out. Troy used high impact plastic to create this 40 pound protective exoskeleton which he hopes to one day get a government contract for and get these out to the American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pros and ConsPros: They vary from helping a disabled person to walk, helping in the physical therapy of a person who recently suffered a