Imagine there's a massive Bay Area earthquake. Buildings sway and then give; injured people are stuck on the top floors of one. Members of a rescue crew prepare to go in, hastily strapping on the tools of their trade: Helmets? Check. Backpack full of medical supplies? Check. Robotic legs? Check.
Sound far-fetched? Not so fast. Engineers have dreamed for decades of wearable human exoskeletons designed to give people extraordinary strength. Researchers around the world have struggled with a deceptively complex problem: how to design a mobile machine strong enough to help people lift heavy loads, yet lightweight and agile enough to walk smoothly in concert with them. The challenge has been to develop a robotic exoskeleton that can increase the strength of its human wearer without getting in his way, slowing him down, or squashing him flat.
General Electric was the first big firm to attempt the task. In the mid-1960s, it designed a behemoth called the HardiMan, which was envisioned as a suit of "mechanical muscles" that would enable its operator to lift up to 1,500 pounds. HardiMan was hardly lithe. It looked like a pair of girders strapped to its operator's waist, forearms, and feet, topped by two clawlike hands. GE ultimately had to admit that it wasn't yet possible to make a machine small enough for a person to safely wear. In fact, HardiMan was so gigantic and fearsome-looking that although the company's engineers did test one of its arms, they never turned on the whole suit for fear that if it unexpectedly convulsed, it might rip apart the person inside.
For the next several decades, exoskeletons rarely made it past the drawing board. Much of the scientific interest came from within the biomedical community, which began to explore their potential to help paralyzed people walk again. Most notably, last year a Japanese company succeeded in creating HAL-3, the Hybrid Assistive Leg, a set of motorized leg braces with a backpack power source designed to help the elderly and disabled walk normally.
But if the world of mechanical engineering has largely failed to produce working exoskeletons, 20th-century pop culture was churning them out at a fantastic rate. Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel about war between humans and aliens, is widely acknowledged as the exoskeleton's literary debut. In the book, futuristic infantry soldiers wear "powered armor" that allows them to effortlessly jump over buildings and shoot arcs of fire in their wake. Heinlein's troopers were outfitted in helmeted full-body suits so bulky they gave soldiers the appearance of a "hydrocephalic gorilla." They served as full life-support systems complete with air and water supply, as well as a helmet-mounted visual display that the soldiers manipulated by pressing their chins on a control plate, and a communications system they activated by biting down on sensors inside their mouths. "That is the beauty of a powered suit: you don't have to think about it," the author presciently imagined. "You don't have to drive it, fly it, conn it, operate it; you just wear it and it takes orders directly from your muscles and does for you what your muscles are trying to do. This leaves you with your whole mind free to handle your weapons and notice what is going on around you ... which is supremely important to an infantryman who wants to die in bed."
Another popular early version of the exoskeleton came from Stan Lee's 1960s comic Iron Man, in which a war-wounded inventor, held in a prison camp, builds himself a metal suit of armor in order to protect his shrapnel-pierced body, and then goes on to battle Communist villains. Over the next few decades, movie and television writers created a host of characters that were part man and part machine: Robocop, The Terminator, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Dr. Miles Hawkins, the wheelchair-bound exoskeleton-wearing hero from M.A.N.T.I.S., to name just a few. Japanese anime gave viewers another set of hybrid heroes, as well as hugely successful series such as Robotech and Gundam which introduced American viewers to the related genre of mecha, giant human-shaped robots. More recently, video games such as Halo have made exoskeleton-like body armor de rigueur accessories for the first-person shooter set.
Perhaps the most memorable fictional depiction of an exoskeleton occurred during the climactic moment of James Cameron's sci-fi thriller Aliens. Hero Ellen Ripley strapped herself into a bright-yellow forklift-like exoskeleton and used it to smack around a drooling, hissing insectoid alien. Her use of the exoskeleton essentially leveled the playing field: Where the alien had claws, Ripley had massive robotic pincer arms; where the alien had a protective outer carapace, Ripley now had her own metal shell. Moral of the story: It takes a bug to fight a bug.
All of these fantasies have contributed to the popular notion that exoskeletons are inherently violent. After all, Americans have been fed a steady diet of pop culture that has portrayed exoskeletons as imposing battle machines. It's a perception that UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni eagerly seeks to dispel. Kazerooni and his team of Berkeley grad students recently unveiled their contribution to the field of exoskeleton research: the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, or BLEEX. From the outside, BLEEX appears far more sci than fi. It resembles a set of metallic leg braces topped by a large hiking backpack, at the base of which is a small plastic box containing the exoskeleton's computer. The pilot stands neatly inside it, looking for all the world like someone about to go camping someplace very, very steep.
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