Archive for May, 2008

Real-Life Iron Man: A Robotic Suit That Magnifies Human Strength

May 20, 2008

Real Iron Man suitAn exoskeleton robotic suit may help workers lift heavy loads and patients move damaged and prosthetic limbs

The prospect of slipping into a robotic exoskeleton that could enhance strength, keep the body active while recovering from an injury or even serve as a prosthetic limb has great appeal. Unlike the svelt body armor donned by Iron Man, however, most exoskeletons to date have looked more like clunky spare parts cobbled together.

Japan’s CYBERDYNE, Inc. is hoping to change that with a sleek, white exoskeleton now in the works that it says can augment the body’s own strength or do the work of ailing (or missing) limbs. The company is confident enough in its new technology to have started construction on a new lab expected to mass-produce up to 500 robotic power suits (think Star Wars storm trooper without the helmet) annually, beginning in October, according to Japan’s Kyodo News Web site.

CYBERDYNE was launched in June 2004 to commercialize the cybernetic work of a group of researchers headed by Yoshiyuki Sankai a professor of system and information engineering at Japan’s University of Tsukuba. Its newest product: the Robot Suit Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) exoskeleton, which the company created to help train doctors and physical therapists, assist disabled people, allow laborers to carry heavier loads, and aid in emergency rescues. A prototype of the exoskeleton suit is designed for the small in stature, standing five feet, three inches (1.6 meters) tall. The suit weighs 50.7 pounds (23 kilograms) and is powered by a 100-volt AC battery (that lasts up to five hours, depending upon how much energy the suit exerts). By way of comparison, a lower-body exoskeleton developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group is powered by a 48-volt battery pack and weighs about 26 pounds (11.8 kilograms).

CYBERDYNE (which film buffs will recognize as the name of the company that built the ill-fated “Skynet” in the Terminator movies) designed the HAL exoskeleton primarily to enhance the wearer’s existing physical capabilities 10-fold. The exoskeleton detects—via a sensor attached to the wearer’s skin—brain signals sent to muscles to get them moving. The exoskeleton’s computer analyzes these signals to determine how it must move (and with how much force) to assist the wearer. The company claims on its Web site that the device can also operate autonomously (based on data stored in its computer), which is key when used by people suffering spinal cord injuries or physical disabilities resulting from strokes or other disorders.

The HAL exoskeleton is currently only available in Japan, but the company says it has plans to eventually offer it in the European Union as well. The company will rent (no option to buy at this time) the suits for about $1,300 per month (including maintenance and upgrades), according to the company’s site, which also says that rental fees will vary: Health care facilities and other businesses renting the suits will pay about three times as much as individuals. The site does not explain why, and the company could not be reached for comment.

CYBERDYNE is not the only company developing exoskeleton technology. The U.S. Army is in the very early stages of testing an aluminum exoskeleton created by Sarcos, a Salt Lake City robotics and medical device manufacturer (and a division of defense contractor Raytheon), to improve soldiers’ strength and endurance. The exoskeleton is made of a combination of sensors, actuators and controllers, and can help the wearer lift 200 pounds several hundred times without tiring, the company said Wednesday in a press release. The company also claims the suit is agile enough to play soccer and climb stairs and ramps.

But there are still many kinks that must be worked out before HAL or any other exoskeleton become part of everyday life. Exoskeletons work in parallel with human muscles, serving as an artificial system that helps the body overcome inertia and gravity, says Hugh Herr, principal investigator for M.I.T.’s Biomechatronics Group, which is developing a light, low-power exoskeleton that straps to a person’s waist, legs and feet. Wearers’ feet go into boots attached to a series of metal tubes that run up a leg to a backpack. The device transfers the backpack’s payload from the back of the wearer to the ground.

One of the difficulties in developing exoskeletons for health care is the diversity of medical needs they must meet. “One might have knee and ankle problems, others might have elbow problems,” Herr says. “How in the world do you build a wearable robot that accommodates a lot of people?”

Real Life Iron ManThere are also concerns about the exoskeleton discouraging rehabilitation by doing all of the work of damaged limbs that might benefit from even limited use. “If the orthotic does everything,” Herr says, “the muscle degrades, so you want the orthotic to do just the right amount of work.”

Power efficiency could also become an issue, given that the HAL moves thanks to a number of electric motors placed throughout the exoskeleton. The problem with electrical power is that you have to recharge, says Ray Baughman, professor of chemistry and director of the University of Texas at Dallas’s NanoTech Institute. Baughman and his colleagues have been developing substances that serve as artificial muscles (by converting chemical energy into electrical energy) that may someday be able to move prosthetic limbs and robot parts. Their goal is to avoid the downtime inherent in motor-powered prosthetics that must be recharged.

Makes you appreciate Iron Man’s strength and agility all the more.

Real-Life Iron Man (Sort of)

May 20, 2008

The new Iron Man movie has got everyone and their uncle talking about real-life robotic armor. But Japan’s Cyberdyne (OK, I’m a little worried) comes the closest and is on the verge of mass-producing a strength-enhancing exoskeleton suit called Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL (OK, now I’m a lot worried). The suit even has lighted circles just like Iron Man’s repulsors. I say, forget Iron Man, you now have a suit to match your Imperial Storm Trooper helmet.
The company was started in 2004 and so, like good modern sci-fi geeks, they pay homage to all the robotic fancies of geekdom. Cyberdyne expects to produce up to 500 suits per year starting in October.

Iron Man’s Heavy Metal Rise

May 14, 2008

iron man

Iron Man took flight on May 2, but its soundtrack is out May 6. And although it features mostly film score from Ramin Djawadi and other composers, there is one headbanging tune worthy of Black Sabbath’s seminal “Iron Man,” which the blockbuster licensed for its trailers and features in its closing credits. That song is Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” the sardonic punk anthem which also appeared in the immortal sci-fi flick Repo Man. That’s some righteous circularity.

But Iron Man’s sonic branches reach further, starting with Sabbath.

Black Sabbath, “Iron Man” (1970)

Iron Man the superhero made his comics debut in 1963, but seven years later Ozzy Osbourne and his godfathers of heavy metal released an equally iconic song. Black Sabbath’s iteration of Iron Man is actually a time traveler who turned to steel after passing through a magentic field, at which point he was given the torch-and-pitchfork treatment by his ungrateful planet. Which he then proceeded to stomp into submission for their lack of compassion. Sounds more like the Hulk to me.

Despite the fact Sabbath’s “Iron Man” became the de facto heavy metal anthem after its release in 1970, it wasn’t until 30 years later that the Grammys finally caught up, bestowing a “Best Metal Performance” trophy on the Birmingham legends in 2000. But they weren’t alone in their dereliction: The song hovered below the Top 50 right after it came out. Maybe the spacey visuals from their video at right scared everyone off. Well, that and the skull-crushing power chords.

The Cardigans, “Iron Man” (1996)
Sabbath’s song spawned a few covers, but few as weird as this one from Swedish outfit The Cardigans. Hearing Sabbath’s pounding riffage compressed into saccharine pop is odd enough, but par for the course for The Cardigans: They also covered “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” on their 1994 debut Emmerdale.

Pete Townshend, The Iron Man: A Musical (1989)
The Who’s mastermind adapted his musical from poet Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel, both of which in turn were hardwired into Brad Bird’s classic 1999 animated film The Iron Giant. That musical pedigree was further extended when Bird signed on Harry Connick, Jr. to voice one of the film’s main characters, Dean.

Ghostface Killah, Ironman (1996)
Even though the Wu-Tang lifer’s first solo effort featured production from Clan architect RZA and colleagues Cappadonna and Raekwon, Ironman was nevertheless the softest thing he ever released. Shot through with soul samples and stream-of-consciousness confessionals about his mother and others, Ghost’s breakout as a one-man band could have used more steel. But it did tip its metaphorical hat both to metal and comics, in the songs “Iron Maiden” and “Marvel,” respectively. According to ReelSoundtrack.com, Ghostface also appears on the Iron Man soundtrack. Recognize!

Suicidal Tendencies, “Institutionalized” (1983)
It seems that Tony Stark may have somehow gotten Suicidal’s Mike Muir his historic Pepsi at last. Stark is far from the misunderstood depressive Muir sings about, who just wants to be left alone with his favorite carbonated soda, but the song’s sound and fury fits perfectly with a film about a cyborg trapped in heavy metal and trying to hold onto his sanity. “Institutionalized” became a hit with the release of Suicidal Tendencies’ self-titled 1983 debut, then gained further momentum after landing on the Repo Man soundtrack, along with Iggy Pop, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and more. By the time Guitar Hero got to it, it had become an anthem for the ages.