The Spirit of Trek – Powered Exoskeletons

By Mike Medeiros

Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages have started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture.  In the Star Trek: Deep space Nine episode Melora, we were introduced to the character of Melora Pazlar, an Elaysian woman from a micro-gravity environment, wore an exoskeleton body suit that allowed her to move in normal gravity. This week on the Spirit of Trek we’ll take a look at the various strides being made toward the development of exoskeleton body suits.

When people think of powered exoskeleton suits, the first thing that often comes to their minds is Iron Man. In the films and comics, Tony Stark puts on the Iron Man suit of armor and instantly becomes superpowered. In the recent Batman film, we saw an aging and partially crippled Bruce Wayne benefit from a powered exoskeleton to increase his mobility, strength, and agility. However, the premise of exoskeleton armored suits isn’t anything new to scifi, since it has been around since the late 50s with Starship Troopers.

Powered Exoskeleton suits are no longer the realm of science fiction movies and video games. They are actively being developed all over world for a variety of reasons, including militaristic, industrial, and medical applications. In industry, they can be used in warehouse environments to lift and move heavy objects that would be impossible for a single individual to do alone without the aid of a forklift, mover, or some other piece of equipment. The exoskeletons that the military is developing will help soldiers on the battlefield run faster, carry heavier weapons, and leap over obstacles, all while protecting them from bullets and bombs. The medical applications of the technology can help nurses and other health care providers help more patients without injuring themselves. For patients, these same devices can help the elderly and the infirm to regain mobility. The purpose of these devices aren’t to give the people that wear them superpowers, but instead, to augment their  capabilities to help them live a normal life or perform their jobs better.

Raytheon Sarcos has developed the XOS 2 Exoskeleton suit. This robotic exosuit is designed with military applications in mind and still has a number of hurdles to overcome, before it will see any action, such as reducing its overall weight and power consumption profile. The suit is rather big and bulky, but they claim that its users should experience no difference in how it’s used whether it’s loaded with a 150 pound back pack or unloaded. With their latest generation of the suit, it can lift more weight, while using less power than its predecessor. They have a tethered version that gets its power from an external source which could be useful for logistics. However, their goal is to ultimately create an untethered version that can be used in the field for extended periods of time. The combat variant would only feature the lower half of the suit and would support the back pack the soldier carried. The logistics variant would be the full suit and would be used in situations where heavy lifting is required.

The Vanderbilt Exoskeleton assists those with spinal cord injuries walk, stand, sit, and even climb stairs. The 27 pound exoskeleton uses onboard microprocessors and sensors to detect the user’s current state and intentions and provides movement through the hip and knee joints. Users of this exoskeleton still have to use arm braces to steady themselves as they walk.

Finally, there’s the HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) robot suite from Cyberdyne. If you’re a scifi fan, both of these should make your inner geek to groan, since HAL was the murderous artificial intelligence in the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, while Cyberdyne will be the company that develops SkyNet in the Terminator films. However, even with that said, Cyberdyne is making great advances in the field of robotics, especially with their latest project.

HAL is the first exoskeleton device that has received a global safety certification enabling it to be produced for the mass market. The device is being pitched to rehabilitation facilities and hospitals for both patients and health care professionals to use. As mentioned earlier, nurses can benefit from HAL by enabling them to lift patients from bed without straining themselves or injuring their backs. While patients and the elderly can certainly use the technology to regain mobility, or to just enhance their way of life by making it easier for them to move around.

HAL works by detecting muscle impulses to predict movements, provide support, and provide smoother motions than some of their competitors. But, like most other exoskeletons, it can help with a variety of other professions that require heavy lifting. In fact, an early version of the HAL was used by workers to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant. Now that Cyberdyne has the go ahead, they plan to produce and sell the HAL for under $5000, making it surprisingly affordable. So, I don’t think it will be that long before we begin seeing HAL and other exoskeletons showing up in hospitals and possibly the supermarket stock room.

The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and prosper.

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