How To: Build Your Own Iron Man Powered Armor

June 1, 2008

As we saw in the first instalment on home-made Iron Man-style armor, it’s not impossible to make a suit of armor that gives you protection from bullets -– the problem is being able to move afterwards. Even when advanced ceramics and composites are used, it’s hard to get the weight down. Medium-sized inserts in Interceptor armor weigh four pounds apiece and are about the size of a sheet of A4, so whole body protection is going to weigh a lot. If you could carry a few hundred pounds extra, wearing this sort or armor wouldn’t be so much of a problem –- and that’s when a powered exoskeleton starts looking like a good idea.

Researchers have been working on exoskeletons since the Navy’s unsuccessful Hardiman project back in the 60’s (I think they borrowed from the design for the Matrix movies though). Progress has been slow and the results have been mixed at best. If you want to build your own, then it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of patience. One of the more advanced projects has been the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX), which includes a pair of robotic legs and a backpack. The latest product from Berkeley is the Human Universal Load Carrier (….yeah, that’s HULC™….) which is intended to add 200 pounds to your carrying capacity.

The reduction of the wearer’s metabolic cost is of paramount importance for long duration missions. This is true because excessive oxygen consumption leads to premature fatigue even if the exoskeleton supports the load. In fact, a very recent BAA from the Natick Soldier System Center requests proposals to conduct a preliminary study on solutions that lead to a reduction of oxygen consumption.

HULC™, fueled by proprietary technology, decreases the wearer’s oxygen consumption and heart rate thereby increasing the wearer’s endurance.

When the users carried a load, the effect was more pronounced. The oxygen consumption of these users carrying an 81 pound approach load at a speed of 2MPH was decreased by about 15% when using the prototype HULC™.

Video here .

The Army meanwhile has bigger plans. In an article for The Brookings Institution, Peter Singer gives us A Look At The Pentagon’s Five Step Plan For Making Iron Man Real. This is the Land Warrior program, now Future Force Warrior, which involves a large number of gadgets and gizmos being assembled into one wearable suite for the foot soldier, including various sensors from super-sights to sniffers, weapons, communitcation and navigation. With that sort of load you’re going to need an exoskeleton. But as Singer points out, sometimes the Army get a little carried away:

When the Army-MIT super-soldier project launched, its director, Professor Ned Thomas, extolled, “Imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to leap over 20-foot walls.”

The problem was that the images his program used on the grant proposal were pretty much lifted from the Radix series, about a female superhero who wears an armored skeleton with just those same superpowers. Comic book creators Ray and Ben Lai threatened the project with a lawsuit, “They’re selling this as science fact while we’re trying to sell it as science fiction. And people don’t even know that we created it in the first place. People might even think we’re copying them.”

But it doesn’t necessary take big corporate resources to build a working exoskeleton. Inspired by the powered armor in Starship Troopers, Monty Reed, a former Ranger, has built his own version. Called Lifesuit, it is intended to help those who have lost the use of their legs:

The Seattle native, now 40, has used mostly his own money over many of the past 19 years developing a robotic device he devoutly believes will allow even quadriplegics to walk, climb stairs and, someday, perhaps to dance.

A lanky, 75-pound contraption evoking scenes from “Robocop” and “Aliens,” the robotic exoskeleton looks like a combined backpack and rocket pack, topped with scuba tanks.

Reed has founded a not-for-profit medical organization, TheyShallWalk, to back the project. )Video of the Lifesuit here.)

I remain undecided about whether powered armor is a good idea. I was struck that when SARCOS were researching their powered exoskeleton for the US Army, one of the things that vets most requested was the ability to jump out of the suit and make a run for it. Exoskeletons like Lifesuit may have their uses for the disabled, but on the battlefield they have a long way to go before you’d want to bet your life on one.

(( If all this tinkering with hardware sounds like a lot of work, perhaps the virtual alternative is easier. A competition in Second Life is giving residents the chance to win $125,000 (that’s Linden dollars, it’s about USD $400 ) by creating Iron man fan art using the official Iron man avatar.

Entries so far run from “the sublimely cool to the ridiculous” – there’s a gallery here.))

Want even more? There’s a host of Iron Man related articles at Wired.com’s Iron Man Extravaganza: Everything You Need to Know , covering the movie, the technology of exoskeletons, and related comic-book material.

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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.