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.


Jovie Jane said...

As of late, the robot suits / exoskeleton suits that previously gained news coverage when the movie Iron Man was promoted (the SARCOS / Raytheon robotic suit)back in March 2008. The technological basis behind it is now mostly used to design prosthetic robotic suits to aid those with disability / paraplegics as I recently saw being covered on CNN.
I also saw from an old Popular Mechanics magazine article about MIT's Man Amplifier Project. The problem of finding a lightweight power source (and cost effectiveones?) for such devices preclude their ubiquity in everyday use... for now at least.

April Rain said...

After promoting it for frontline combat use back in March 2008 - probably to capitalize on the popularity of the upcoming Iron Man movie based on the popular Marvel Comics superhero - it is quite ironic (if you excuse the pun) that robotic suits were the topic of CNN's medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta with regards to their applications in helping the paraplegic gain mobility.
I've think I remembered that Man-Amplifier Project in an old Popular Mechanics magazine from the 1970's. The US Air Force designed a robot to handle radioactive material while the human operator was protected by the thick lead shielding which he or she can never lift via sheer muscle power alone. Power-supply issues is what hampers the feasibility of these machines since their experimentation back in the 1960's.
The one worn by Lt. Ellen Ripley on the movie Aliens II is reminiscent of what the motor and skeleton arrangement looks like of the Man-Amplifier Project robotic suit of the 1970's. While the 21st Century SARCOS / Raytheon robotic suits look more like a 1980's Japanese Anime battlefield robot.

Ringo said...

Even though its historical roots are somewhat murky, the Man Amplifier Project could trace its roots to Engineer David Mizen back in 1964 in the Cornell University's Aeronautical Research Development lab. Mizen's Man Amplifier Project was the first ever known "wearable" robotic exoskeleton system than can amplify the strength of its wearer. Around 1964, David Mizen was asked to design an all-terrain vehicle whose performance is way better than the existing World War II era jeep that is still de rigueur in the US DoD in the 1960s. Legend has it that Mizen responded that the human body is the ultimate all terrain vehicle - as in humans can even go to places that horses and other draft animals can't, thus the rationale of the Man Amplifier Project.