Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Robotic Suits: Saving Lives on the Frontline?

Despite the concept behind the projects latest incarnation probably dates back to the 1970’s. Will robotic suits fulfil its much- touted role of providing much needed efficiency and “harm reduction” on the battlefield?

By: Vanessa Uy

The mainstream media’s current interest of this project was partly influenced by the upcoming movie Iron Man, which is based on the popular Marvel Comics superhero. Sarcos Designs, a manufacturing company based in Utah, developed the latest version of robotic suits for test demonstrations and for possible later use by the US Army. The prototype robotic suits could allow each soldier – as proven in earlier test results – using the suit to lift 1,000 pounds worth of gear.

Like the rationale behind Richard J. Gatling’s invention of the Gatling Gun, the robotic suits were touted primarily save human lives on the front line by eliminating the need of unnecessary personnel. So those involved in the drudgery of heavy lifting are very much the same persons who willingly volunteered to be exposed to hostile fire i.e. the soldiers themselves. Also the robotic suits could save time and money since they are now fewer people doing jobs that used to require scores of them to get done.

The concept behind Sarcos Designs’ robotic suits was actually tested back in the time when the Black Sabbath song Iron Man was still in regular airplay by every popular FM stations across America. Human factors engineers were experimenting back in the 1970’s a wearable steel skeleton with a sophisticated control system which enabled US soldiers to pick up 1,000- pound loads. Known as the Man Amplifier project, it allowed the operator wearing the suit to lift tremendous loads just by using his regular movements. When the operator touches and lifts an object, the wearable steel skeleton transmits the pressure to him or her. When the operator responds to these signals, the steel skeleton senses the muscle action, follows it exactly, and adds the powerful push of its hydraulic motors to “amplify” the operators lift action that allows him or her to lift tremendous loads. Back then, the design engineers have the dexterity of the operator in mind. Given that their device has a repertoire of seven variations of elbow and shoulder movements, this allows the operator to be able to climb stairs and ladders.

Despite relative successes of the prototype, wearable robotic suits never gained widespread use because of power source issues and the technology's apparent demand didn’t justify the somewhat steep development costs incurred by the project. So the project was shelved for another time because the problem that these robotic suits intend to solve could be done cheaply by other means. Like cheap labor from illegal migrants to put it bluntly.

But wearable robotic suits that amplifies a persons lifting capability did gain widespread use, albeit in the world of science fiction. Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in the movie Aliens used a similar device to jettison a hostile alien life form into space near the climactic end of the movie. Given the recent advances in electric motor and battery design, the Sarcos Designs’ robotic suits could take advantage of this especially the availability of small sized high- powered lithium-ion batteries. This could make robotic suits an indispensable tool of the US Armed Forces within ten years time, given the current urgency of the need for such technology.