Exoskeletons give the wearer more power and endurance. Credit: SuitX
Imagine wearing high-tech body armour that makes you super strong and tireless. Such technology, more specifically called an exoskeleton, sounds like the preserve of the Iron Man series of superhero movies.
exoskeleton [ˈeksoʊskelɪtn]: n. 外骨骼
Yet the equipment is increasingly being worn in real life around the world. And one manufacturer - California's SuitX - expects it to go mainstream.
"There is no doubt in my mind that these devices will eventually be sold at hardware stores," says SuitX's founder Homayoon Kazerooni.
In simple terms, an exoskeleton is an external device that supports, covers and protects its user, giving greater levels of strength and endurance.
Sometimes also referred to as "wearable robots", they can be battery-powered and computer-operated, incorporating motors and hydraulics. Or they can be more simple, passive designs that use springs and dampeners.
Exoskeletons are also designed to protect the user. Credit: SuitX
"Integrating humans and machines into one system opens up a new realm of opportunity," says Adrian Spragg, an expert on the technology at management consultancy Accenture. "Many of the early applications have been focused on military and medical applications, but in the last several years there's been an explosion of use in a range of cases."
This expansion, which has come together with rapid advances in the technology, has seen exoskeletons increasingly used by manufacturing workers. Versions for consumers are also now being developed to help people more easily do everything from DIY, to walking, climbing stairs, and other daily activities.
One report says sales are now due to rocket as a result. Global exoskeleton revenues are expected to rise from $392m in 2020 to $6.8bn in 2030, according to a study by ABI Research.
SuitX's "suits" are now being tested by car manufacturers General Motors and Fiat. Prof Kazerooni, who is also the director of the University of California's Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, says that the primary benefit of the firm's exoskeletons is to prevent muscle fatigue.
"We've shown that muscle activity in the back, shoulder and knees drops by 50%," he says. "If muscle activities drop, that means the risk of muscle injury is less.
"This means that factory or plant managers get more productivity, their insurance costs are lower, and there are less workdays lost to injury. There's less cost and more productivity."
The Iron Hand app allows the user to adjust how strongly the glove reacts to his or her hand movement. Credit: BioServo
General Motors is also looking at a battery-powered exoskeleton glove developed by Bioservo.
This glove, called the Iron Hand, has sensors and motors in each finger, which automatically respond to the level of force that the wearer applies to his or her hand when lifting or gripping something. The glove therefore takes up some of the strain.
BioServo says it can increase the wearer's hand strength by 20% for extended periods.
The most advanced exoskeletons use artificial intelligence (AI) computer systems - software that can to a certain extent learn and adapt by itself.
SuitX is now testing a knee brace aimed at walkers and hikers. Credit: SuitX
At the moment, however, more widespread adoption of exoskeleton technology is still held back by a number of factors, including battery capacity, limited range of motion, and cost.
"The average cost [of a full-body exoskeleton] is around $45,000," says Accenture's Mr Spragg. "However, with economies of scale and technological maturity, prices will come down."
SuitX's Prof Kazerooni says that falling prices will also open up the possibility to tap into a potentially huge market - recreational exoskeletons. His firm is now working on such a device that supports the wearer's knee.
"It's not only for people who are going climbing and hiking, or younger people who want to be more adventurous, or for people who want to do more walking and climbing but not hurt their knees," he says. "It'll be for all ages. It's simply giving you a little boost."