These new exoskeletons make you look like Iron Man

Estimated read time 6 min read

These new exoskeletons make you look like Iron Man

An exoskeleton developed for running and walking at Chung-Ang University, South Korea. Chung-Ang University

The successful Marvel character Iron Man was first imagined in 1961. But the famous film franchise starring Robert Downey Jr in the role of the ace of invention Tony Stark is so contemporary and fresh in our minds that the combinations of the character still seem to be science fiction.

However, it turns out that this is not the case. In fact, the world of “exoskeletons” of the type that Iron Man wears, is already here.

Walk around the loading docks of factories, cargo operation halls and other areas where heavy objects have to be moved, and you may be shocked to see people wearing overalls that are not very far from those worn by people like Iron Man.

A technology already implemented in the world of work

These suits are not exactly designed to move through the air by throwing explosive projectiles at the bad guys. However, what they can do – or rather what the humans who pilot them from the inside can do – is completely superhuman.

The workers who wear these suits are able to lift much heavier objects and work longer, and this at levels that only machines are capable of.

Powered by batteries, hydraulic systems, wires, rubber bands, springs or any other material that seems best suited to the task at hand, work becomes a game. All of a sudden, we, as a species, are on an equal footing with robots.

Reduce back muscle fatigue by 86%

For most companies, anxious to stand out from their competitors, this means a considerable gain in efficiency thanks to these exoskeletons.

According to a study, even a minimalist “exosuit” made it possible to reduce back muscle fatigue by 86%. This translates into a reduction in workplace injuries, increased productivity and reduced insurance costs.

Some exoskeletons can even assist a specific limb. A glove called “Iron Hand” can increase the strength of the hand by 20% by gripping or lifting heavy objects, thanks to sensors and motors integrated in each finger.

A complete hip movement

The problem is that there is not much on the market when it comes to an exoskeleton to wear on a daily basis. Nothing to wear to carry groceries. Nothing for a hike. Nothing that can be simply hung on the coat rack once you get home.

So far, anyway.

Professor Giuk Lee, from the department of mechanical engineering at South Korean Chung-Ang University, is probably one of the busiest people in the world of exoskeletons.

“Walking is by nature a three-dimensional activity”

He has simultaneously published two studies presenting two slightly different types of exoskeleton combinations that promise to revolutionize mobility as we know it, especially for people whose muscles deteriorate or weaken, or who are amputated.

One of these suits, composed of elements that have nothing to do with Iron Man, such as a light fabric vest, a belt and waders, connected by wires and powered by a battery and a small motor, weighs an impressive 3.5 kg.

But the main attribute that could make it a pioneering prototype is the way the suit is built to facilitate movements.

“Our article was inspired by the observation that most wearable walking assistance robots have focused only on movements in the sagittal plane,” Lee explains in TechXplore. (The sagittal plane is longitudinal, from head to toe, dividing the body into two equal halves, left and right).

“However, walking is by nature a three-dimensional activity, and movements in other planes are just as crucial,” he adds.

The exoskeleton reduced the metabolic cost of walking by 11.6 %

That is why Lee and his team decided to focus on the frontal plane, which separates the front (anterior) half of the body from the back (posterior) half and ensures lateral stability during walking.

Their theory is that the use of a natural hip abduction movement – that is, the movement of the leg back and forth and away from the midline of the body – reduces the effort undertaken by the body.

“As we move forward, our body’s center of mass naturally moves from side to side to maintain balance – a process known as recovery. During this recovery phase, the abduction muscles of the hip are stressed. Our device assists these muscles, which makes it easier for the wearer to recover his center of mass with less effort,” explains Mr. Lee.

After testing the effectiveness of the combination, the results are convincing: The exoskeleton reduced the metabolic cost of walking by 11.6% compared to normal walking, without assistance, and there is no doubt that it will improve even more.

Of miracle workers

Other studies have taken similar steps. Stanford University has documented a case where students were able to walk at a 40% faster pace, on average, while spending 2% less energy.

For those who suffer from mobility problems due to muscle atrophy, surgeries, above-knee amputations, Parkinson’s disease and other medical disorders, or who are simply aging, these combinations could prove to be miracle workers.

Running at lightning speed

But Lee and his team are obsessed with another problem, more difficult to solve: could we use an exoskeleton to sprint?

They have developed a similar but slightly more resistant suit, chronicled in Science Robotics, with a few additional electric motors attached to steel cables themselves attached to the thighs of the runner. When the motors are running, they allow the cables to expand and contract, as muscles do during running.

However, the researchers have faced a greater challenge: Running and walking use different approaches and the exoskeletons had until now found it difficult to tell the difference between the two.

An algorithm capable of detecting the type of movement used in the middle of the stride

To solve this problem, the research team has developed an algorithm capable of detecting the type of movement used in the middle of the stride in order to transmit it to the device, which then adapts accordingly.

The device was able to detect the correct gait in more than 99.98% of cases.

Finally, the research team equipped nine male runners – amateurs, not professionals – and asked them to sprint 200 meters each, with and without the suit. Again, the results are unequivocal: On average, runners are 0.97 seconds faster with the wetsuit than without, as reported by the MIT Technological Review.

Here is a preview of their work on YouTube.

Run 15% more efficiently than normal

Similarly, another study conducted at Stanford showed that students could run about 15% more efficiently than normal on a treadmill thanks to a motorized frame attached to their shins and ankles.

Of course, no one will allow sprinters equipped with an exoskeleton to participate in the Olympic Games.

These experiments demonstrate that many people, like Professor Lee, are obsessed with increasing mobility by striving to push the limits of exosuits until they are commercialized.

We are now very close to an era where we could soon see exosuits hanging in sports stores or on our coat racks, while opening up new possibilities in the fields of work, or play.

These pioneering experiences will help us to achieve this.

Source: “ “

You May Also Like

More From Author