May 6, 2008 The advent of the robotic age is upon us and we can expect a huge transformation in the coming decade as robots of all shapes and sizes make their presence felt in many aspects of our lives. But robots wont just stand by our side as assistants, we'll actually climb aboard and wear them like a shell or suit of armor. This type of robot - known as an exoskeleton - is being developed in various guises that deliver extraordinary strength and endurance to the wearer and have the potential to impact on military, medical, industrial and transport arenas - anywhere that personal mobility, agility and strength is required. Raytheon's progress in the field is making headline news this week thanks in part to an intriguing article appearing in the May issue of Popular Science which makes the link between the company's ongoing research for the U.S. military and the release of the much hyped superhero flick Ironman(R).
The Raytheon Sarcos team led by Dr. Stephen Jacobsen has produced a futuristic robotic exoskeleton that consists of a series of sensors, actuators and controllers that amplifies the wearer's ability, enabling 150 pound weights to be lifted several hundred times or carried without tiring, but retaining the agility to play soccer or make a mockery of a speedbag.
Under development for the U.S. Army since 2000, Jacobsen says his work is a combination of art, science, engineering and design. "People call it different things. Sometimes they call it inventing, sometimes they call it engineering. Sometimes they call it being a mad scientist. To us, it's the process of getting together, understanding the problems, goals, and then designing something to satisfy the need." And yes - Jacobsen cites going to see sci-fi movies such as Ironman as part of the imaginative process inherent in developing equipment for soldiers of the future.
The shape of exoskeletons is in no way limited to humanoid-size frame. On one end of the scale, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a "Lower Extremity Exoskeleton" that connects only to the legs of the wearer, and on a much larger scale, examples like Japanese machinery and robotics manufacturer Sakakibara-Kikai's 3.4 meter tall Land Walker or tmsuk's huge Enryu (for cinematic reference think back to the Alien and Matrix film series') showcase the potential of exoskeleton systems for industrial and mining applications.
Another emerging category that will potentially have the greatest impact on the average citizen is in the use of exoskeleton devices to enhance personal mobility. Toyota's planned partner robots and the i-unit provide a glimpse of what's in store.
More info including video footage of the Exoskeleton in action can be found at the Raytheon site.