Nearly a decade ago Iron Man graced the theaters and lit up interest in robotics and exoskeleton technology overnight. While Sci-fi and fantasy genres have had a long-term affair with the concept of machine and humans combining, science has lagged in development.
To be fair to science, Iron Man’s machine is completely unrealistic unless one is lucky enough to have an entirely fictional arc reactor to power such a heavy suit. So, out of reach for science currently.
Though this has not stopped innovators and developers, military to medical, from pouring money into a workable model.
So what has science come up with to date, and how can it affect lives and business?
Early robotics failures
While the early years of R&D for exoskeletons focused on a human size suit, creating superhuman strength in soldiers, the reality of such mechanics failed.
Failure in the mechanics came about in two parts. First, the suits were too heavy for regular use, with the early suits coming in at 150 lbs. The power pack was extensive, even if the human was not required to move the machine.
Second, the actual mechanics failed. Humans risked awkwardness at best and falling at worst. This was particularly difficult on the medical side of R&D, as no one wanted to create a robot the individual was riding in.
Yet neither government nor medical research were willing to give up on the idea of robotic assisted humans.
After several projects were shelved, focus became how to power a suit without power, make a suit light enough, or how to integrate the suit seamlessly into the human anatomy.
Current exoskeleton projects
While Lockheed Martin shelved their original soldier suit due to not passing military tests, recently they have had success. Unlike the first project, Lockheed Martin has designed an exoskeleton focused just on the lower half of a soldier, focused on taking burden away from knees and backs. This allows the participants to avoid fatigue while carrying up to 40lbs long distances.
Lockheed’s success is due to sensors and software which measure and respond to the soldier’s speed, increasing or decreasing assistance.
Similarly, software and algorithms are playing an important part in medical exoskeletons. SuitX’s Phoenix has been out of research for over a year now, with some moderate success regarding interaction between the individual and the robotics. The weaknesses of the design are the cumbersome crutches, as well as the price tag of $40,000.
Yet other companies have learned the lessons from early exoskeleton failures and are focusing on smaller, and softer, designs. All while trying to stay focused on affordability and out of box flexibility. Some companies have chosen to go with focused models tailored specifically for portions of the body.
And some companies have gone away from machine entirely. Medically designed soft suits use no battery pack and are made from flexible material and artificial muscle.
Machine learning and AI
The biggest breakthrough for robotic/human interaction is the advances in machine learning. As mentioned above, Lockheed Martin’s succeeded partially due to algorithms that adjust to the wearer’s gait and speed.
Also, medical research has chosen to focus in on user-specific robotics rather than a machine that fits everyone. Using algorithms, softer style robotics learn and adjust, making the exoskeleton designed for each user’s specific need. No longer is the human at risk of counteracting the machine’s benefit.
Yet with all the focus on trying to create an Iron Man exoskeleton, medical research has taken a different step forward in robotics and machine learning, utilizing all the R&D at their disposal.
Namely a high-tech neuroprosthetic device.
Doctors successfully attached a neuroprosthetic arm in Utah. Doctors attached sensors and nodes, allowing for nerve sense. The patient can feel what he is touching and has complete control over the robotic arm.
Dubbed the “Luke arm,” the robotic prosthetic uses sensory feedback to ensure a closed loop between the patient’s nerve endings and the arm. Rather than algorithms controlling the arm, mimicked biology controls the arm.
Although it’s clear an Iron Man style suit is unrealistic for multiple reasons, neither military nor medical is ready to give up on the idea of robotic assisted humans.
Mock models are already assisting lumber companies and firemen, with the military doubling down on knee and back assistance. Workable and affordable models for paraplegics and other disabled individuals, and their caregivers, is not far behind.
So two business questions come to mind: how can robotics help your staff complete their jobs, including decreasing injury and down time, and should your business start looking to invest?