systems and battery technology have
improved to the point that wearable
exoskeletons are now possible.
One of the main drawbacks to
exoskeleton development has been
the dreaded power supply issue —
especially for wearable systems. This
limitation applies to both disability
enabling suits and devices to give
able-bodied people extreme
capabilities. A human being can carry
only so much load on their frame, and
a disabled person is even more
limited. Exoskeletons of years past
have been a bit weighty, and power
was derived from NiCad batteries.
Reed’s Lifesuit uses compressed air
from a 3,000 psi scuba tank.
Today’s lithium polymer and similar
battery chemistries offer high watthour capacity (power density) at a
lower mass, and more efficient motors
are making exoskeletons a reality.
Exoskeletons are not new to
experimental and home hobbyist
robots, either. Many robots that I have
seen that have been built by
experimenters use hard external shells
for legs and arm sections, and are
fastened together by swivel joints.
Internal motors or driven cables move
these structural pieces much like that
of a crab’s pincer arms.
Articulated joint fingers for robot
hands on experimenter’s robots
frequently use hollow aluminum or
plastic tubing sections with simple
swivel joints to hold the pieces
together. Internal cables can tug on
the individual fingers, allowing them
to close in a manner similar
to a human hand. I’ll
discuss that technology in a bit.
People who understand the
applications and theory of robotics
have had some trouble with science
fiction movies such as the Iron Man
series. On one hand, this exposure to
the general public of a robot suit that
automatically snaps together around
the wearer and then rockets into the
air for hours at a time certainly gives a
very incorrect picture of the state of
robotics and rocketry.
For the layman, though, any type
of portrayal of robotics that keeps the
technology fresh in the minds of the
public is good. Most people are
certainly aware that a lot of what is
shown in these scenarios is not
available today, and most likely will
not be available in their lifetime.
Real World Ways to
Look at Exoskeleton
There are several ways in which to
categorize human augmentation with
exoskeletons. Quite often, we look at
the views presented by films. Though
Downey’s character — billionaire
industrialist Tony Stark — started out
with a chest and heart damaged by
shrapnel, he was, in all sense of the
word, a ‘normal’ human being with all
of his physical capabilities. His artificial
heart was nuclear powered. (No
The suit that he ultimately
developed to escape from being
captured gave him super human
strength, plus a few other capabilities
such as the ability to fly. The third
movie in the series continues with a
similar CGI-produced suit shown in
Figure 4 with all its wondrous
capabilities used to save humanity
from the evil Mandarin (we’re not
talking about a small orange here).
As I mentioned previously, the
more newsworthy category of
augmenting a human is the
application of robotics to assist our
injured soldiers returning from the
battlefield. These individuals once had
average or above average physical
capabilities, and lost part or most of
that due to severe injuries incurred
during the Middle East wars.
This same technology is also
being applied to persons with
disabilities that are not the result of
an injury. It is in these applications
that our state-of-the-art robotics and
mechatronics capabilities are able to
develop functional systems to assist
people in their daily lives. The 1997
Robo Cop film’s main character really
falls into this latter category as a
severely injured policemen. He was
SERVO 11.2013 77
Advances in robots and robotics over the years.
Figure 4. Robert Downey Jr. and his Iron Man suit.
Figure 5. Scene from Robocop 3.