Connectivity

A Modular Exoskeleton Will Make More Workers Bionic

Even human workers are becoming more robotic, thanks to cheaper, lighter exoskeletons.

As robotic technology gets cheaper and more capable, even human workers are starting to seem a bit robotic.

SuitX, a spin-off of the University of California, Berkeley, that makes exoskeletons for those with disabilities, has launched a trio of devices that use robotic technologies to enhance the abilities of able-bodied workers and prevent common workplace injuries.

The backX, part of a modular exoskeleton from a company called SuitX.

The Modular Agile eXoskeleton, or MAX, consists of three components—backX, shoulderX, and legX—that lower the forces on different joints and muscles. They can be worn individually or together to help with lifting, carrying, squatting, and other repetitive manual tasks.

Here’s a video of someone using legX.

The technology was developed in the lab of Homayoon Kazerooni, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley who has been working on exoskeletons for many years. His lab recently performed a research study concluding that backX leads to a 60 percent reduction in activation of lower back muscles for the wearer. “It’s not only lifting 75 pounds that can hurt your back; it is also lifting 20 pounds repeatedly throughout the day that will lead to injury,” Kazerooni says.

And here’s the shoulderX in action.

SuitX also makes an exoskeleton called the Phoenix to help those who would otherwise be wheelchair-bound. The company hasn’t disclosed the cost of the new hardware, but the Phoenix costs $40,000.

Some companies, such as BMW, are already experimenting with exoskeletons as a way to prevent workplace injury and prolong workers’ careers. The MAX is another (bionic) step toward an augmented future of work.

New materials, novel mechanical designs, and cheaper actuators and motors have enabled a new generation of cheaper, more lightweight exoskeletons to emerge in recent years. For instance, research groups at Harvard and SRI are developing systems that are passive and use soft, lightweight materials.

(Read more: "This $40,000 Robotic Exoskeleton Lets the Paralyzed Walk," "The Elderly May Toss Their Walkers for This Robotic Suit," "Motorized Pants to Help Soldiers and Stroke Victims")