Robotic Suits Amplify Human Capabilities

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Robotic Suits Amplify Human Capabilities

A company in Salt Lake City called Sarcos Inc. is under contract with the U.S. Army to develop a robotic suit that can be worn to amplify a person's strength by 20 times, according to a report in the Associated Press.1  Although the suit is not yet ready for general use, it is sufficiently developed that Raytheon, the giant defense contractor in Waltham, Massachusetts, bought the company in 2007. 

The robot suit, known as an exoskeleton, is essentially a wearable robot, according to a recent cover story in Popular Science2 magazine.  It works by sensing the muscle movements of the person wearing it and amplifying them through electro-mechanical means.  The Army intends to use the suit first for jobs like loading cargo or repairing heavy equipment.  But it is ultimately intended to create super-soldiers, who are all-powerful and indestructible on the battlefield.

The concept behind the exoskeleton was first developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's most visionary R&D arm.  While the idea had been around since the 1963 comic book "Ironman" appeared, nothing was done with it until 2000, when DARPA pledged $75 million to create a program called Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation.  Essentially, it took until that time for the technology of sensors and microprocessors to evolve sufficiently to make such a device.

The project is aimed at building a wearable robot that will enable soldiers to carry hundreds of pounds while hiking for days without fatigue; to jump higher and handle weapons that take two unaided people to carry; and to single-handedly remove injured soldiers from the battlefield.  The exoskeleton would also provide armor that would offer protection from enemy fire.

According to the leaders of the team at Cornell University, the exoskeleton DARPA wants will require a portable power system that can run it for a whole day:  small, powerful artificial muscles; and complex control systems.  It will need to work fast, instantly picking up on the wearer's intentions.  Each sensor would have to read the smallest muscle movements thousands of times a second to create instantaneous responses. 

But even as this idealized exoskeleton is being developed by DARPA and Sarcos, according to the Web site, numerous other efforts are underway, suggesting a widespread technological trend that should have broad implications in the near future. 

For example, engineers at Tsukuba University in Japan have developed a wearable robot called HAL-5,

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