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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Iron Man-Like Exoskeleton Nears Production

A real-life version of the famed robotic exoskeleton is a “mere” five years from production.

  • August 11, 2011

By now, with films like Iron Man, its sequel, and Avatar, Hollywood has made us thoroughly familiar with the idea of the robotic exoskeleton. Less well known, however, is that researchers are actually building robotic exoskeletons like the ones envisioned by Hollywood and the comic book visionaries from whom Hollywood pilfers its most lucrative ideas. Among the developers of real-life Iron Man suits (of which there are many, the world over) is a group called Raytheon Sarcos. And as IEEE Spectrum reports in this month’s issue, its impressive second-generation exoskeleton robotics suit, dubbed the XOS 2, is nearing production.

“Nearing production,” in the tech world, is even looser of a phrase than in Hollywood, where screenwriters often whine of interminable delays to shooting. It’ll take five years to start deploying a version of the suit that must be tethered to a power source (hardly an arrangement that would befit the exploits of a would-be Tony Stark). And for a free-range version, expect to wait a decade or more, per Fraser Smith, VP of operations of Raytheon Sarcos (which is itself a subgroup of Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems).

Spectrum also has the specs on the new version of the suit (which, incidentally, was dubbed one of Time’s “Best Inventions of 2010”). It uses a system of high-pressure hydraulics, sensors, actuators and controllers, all “while leaving its wearer agile enough to kick a soccer ball.” In the way technological progress tends to offer win-win scenarios, the XOS 2 is both lighter and stronger (not to mention more durable) than the XOS 1, which debuted in 2008.

Explains the story’s author, Susan Karlin, Raytheon Sarcos engineers have increased the suit’s power efficiency by “cutting the suit’s weight and redesigning the servo valves so that more hydraulic fluid can be forced through them without undue turbulence.” (They hope to lop off another 70% worth of power consumption.) The suit uses Ethernet-connected sensors throughout the suit; these are connected to distributed computer processors, which in turn prompt actuators to “deliver up to 200 kg per square centimeter of force through high-pressure hydraulics.”

Intense stuff–and it all came, in the end, from the minds of a couple comic book writers. Karlin quotes one of them, Bob Layton, who says, “It makes sense that it would find its way into reality. All those engineers were probably comic geeks as kids.” (And a Raytheon Sarcos rep confirmed that the company was “full of geeks.”)

Bullies, then, might want to watch out who they pick on on the playground. For our part, we’re more keen on the peace-time applications of technology like this–but at the end of the day, this is a project closely tied to more bellicose uses. With geeks at the helm, the engineering of a suit like this gives new meaning to the phrase “revenge of the nerds.”

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