I, Robot 

Meet BLEEX, the first functional human exoskeleton, which pairs human brains and mechanized brawn.

Page 5 of 9

Engineers and the military have long believed that exoskeletons could be useful, but the failure of the HardiMan project convinced them that they'd have to wait a little while until they became more feasible. But by the turn of the millennium, things had changed. Kazerooni says the success of BLEEX is largely the result of advances in computer processing, which have made sensors and computer networks faster, more powerful, and more capable of governing nuanced movements. "This machine has an incredible set of computer controls which is very elaborate," he says. "It's years of programming to get it into that phase. This never existed during the '50s with the HardiMan." Scientific understanding of how humans walk had improved, and technological advances had made component parts -- from engines to actuators -- both smaller and more capable. "I learned a lot by studying work the military and some other people had done back in the '60s and '70s, and a lot of the technological barriers back then had been solved by now," Chu says. "A lot of those things that brought these thirty-year-old projects to a grinding halt, if you look at the technology nowadays, the same barriers aren't there anymore."

That same idea had occurred to the people at DARPA as well. "Military folks have always had to carry large packs and a lot of weight, so it's not a new need in the military," says spokeswoman Jan Walker. "But up until now we haven't been at the point technologically to consider a solution. We felt that there had been technology developments in actuators and power sources and computer processors and software that might allow us to do what we hadn't been able to do in the past."

Over the last few years, much attention has been given to the idea that future wars will be fought in urban environments, where soldiers may fight on foot and without the protection of vehicles. No longer encased in tanks or trucks, soldiers are being armed with ever-increasing amounts of weaponry, protective devices, and communications gear they must carry on their bodies. Although DARPA does not currently imagine that every future soldier will go into battle tricked out with an exoskeleton, the agency believes that wearing them would help soldiers lug all of that gear to the battle. "The idea of the exoskeleton would be to allow them to do the approach march and then get to their mission and not be tired from carrying everything," Walker says. "It would help them be fresher and more capable during the firefight." She also points out that helping soldiers bear more weight would allow troops to wear heavier body armor and carry more supplies and ammunition.

DARPA also envisions other uses for the technology, such as exoskeleton-equipped soldiers single-handedly loading missiles onto airplanes, thereby making it possible to reload a plane anywhere, instead of having to send it back to a base. Exoskeletons also could help medics evacuate injured personnel from the battlefield, Walker says. But she is careful to stress that DARPA doesn't try to control design details or specify a new technology's possible future applications -- once a working prototype exists, the different branches of the military services can tweak it to suit to their own needs. "What we want to do is demonstrate the technology," she says. "We have to develop it, integrate it, and prove that it works. Then, once that technology is available to the military services, they'll figure out what they want it to look like and how they would use it, if they use it at all."

In 2001 DARPA launched its Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program, which budgeted $50 million and five years to develop a working lower-extremity exoskeleton. Originally, six teams were chosen to develop prototypes, and only two teams made the cut last fall to continue receiving funding: the Cal group and the Sarcos Research Corporation in Utah. DARPA reports that Sarcos' exoskeleton, dubbed ALEX for Autonomous Lower EXtremity system, first walked unaided last December. The Cal team beat them to it by several months.

In many ways, Kazerooni seems the logical choice to lead research into building a machine that would integrate human movement and robot strength. The professor has spent the last fifteen years researching the technology related to exoskeletons and human augmentation. Kazerooni attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied mechanical engineering and did research on manufacturing and human-machine systems. He then spent four years as an associate professor at the University of Minnesota before coming to Berkeley in 1991, where he is currently director of the university's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory.

Even as a child, Kazerooni says, he was always at home around machines. He recalls a youth spent building go-karts and tinkering in his high school's laboratory. "I was always interested in technology and making things with my hands," he says. "I was fascinated with mathematics. I was always in the shop, tooling around, basically."


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