Today, in Japan and the United States, engineers are finally putting some practical exoskeletons through their paces outside of laboratories. But don't look for these remarkable new systems to bustbricks or spew lightning. The very first commercially available exoskeleton, scheduled to hit the market in Japan next month, is designed to help elderly and disabled people walk, climb stairs, and carry things around. Built by Cyberdyne Inc., in Tsukuba, Japan, this exoskeleton, called HAL-5, will cost about 1.5 million yen (around US $13 800).
Meanwhile, in the United States, the most advancedexoskeleton projects are at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Sarcos Research Corp., in Salt Lake City. Both are funded under a $50 million, five-year program begun by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, in 2001. During the past several months, each group has been working on a second-generation exoskeleton that is a huge improvement over its predecessor. Littleinformation about the new models had been officially released by press time, but IEEE Spectrum has learned that the Berkeley unit was successfully tested in a park near the campus this past summer and the latest Sarcos model was demonstrated to a panel of military observers at Fort Belvoir, Va., last April.
HAL-5, in Japan, and the systems by Berkeley and Sarcos, in the United States, appear to bethe first of a platoon of considerably more capable exoskeletons aimed at real-world uses that may soon, quite literally, be walking near you [see tables of exoskeleton projects "Projects in the United States", " " and " "]. Most of these systems are designed to help physically weak or injured people gain more mobility or perform rehabilitation exercises. But researchers are quick to mentionother commercial possibilities for their creations: rescue and emergency personnel could use them to reach over debris-strewn or rugged terrain that no wheeled vehicle could negotiate; firefighters could carry heavy gear into burning buildings and injured people out of them; and furniture movers, construction workers, and warehouse attendants could lift and carry heavier objects safely.
At long last,exoskeletons, the stuff of science fiction, are on the verge of proving themselves in military and civilian applications. Strap-on robotic controls for the arms and hands--used to remotely operate manipulators that handle nuclear material, for example--have been around for quite a while. But the new anthropomorphic, untethered, and self-powered exoskeletons now strutting out of labs aren't just abunch of wearable joysticks. They marry humans' decision-making capabilities with machines' dexterity and brute force. They've got the brains to control the brawn.
Biologically speaking, an exoskeleton is the hard outer structure of an insect or crustacean that provides support or protection. But in military research labs, popular fiction, and movies, the term has come to mean a "supersuit," asystem that can greatly augment a person's physical abilities.
Now, if exoskeletons are so attractive, why aren't ports, construction sites, and warehouses--not to mention war zones and nursing homes--teeming with them? The reason is that the basic technologies haven't been available. Indeed, all attempts to build exoskeletons in the United States failed until recently. At General Electric's...