Literary Laboratory: Powered Exoskeletons

After weeks of roasting heat that the local weather forecasters dubbed a “flash drought”, the rain finally came in yesterday. Which would have been great, if it weren’t the scheduled delivery date for my box of bargain books from Amazon Prime Day. The mail carrier’s knock barely penetrated the hammering drops, but I caught the flash of her red slicker in the grey beyond my studio window. Abandoning my piano cover of the Horizon: Zero Dawn theme song, I leapt up from the keyboard and bolted downstairs. The cardboard already gleamed a sodden teak color. Water could be mere nanometers from those fragile pages. Panicked, I snatched up the heavy box. Pain sheared through my lower back and I almost dropped the package on my toes. Since developing some orthopedic problems a few years ago, I’ve started paying much closer attention to fundamental body mechanics, but sometimes there’s no avoiding the need to move a certain way. Since I can’t get a whole new spine, maybe I should look into getting a powered exoskeleton.

It might sound like a concept used for writing science fiction books rather than hoisting weighty stacks of them, but exoskeletons are already appearing on factory floors. The standard occupational lift limit for a human worker is 40 pounds; that number jumps to 200 pounds with the help of a commercial exoskeleton. It doesn’t have to be a customized Iron Man suit, either. A Michigan-based company recently showcased an exoskeleton designed to assist shoulder movement in industrial work. The parts can reportedly be adjusted to fit any body shape. Imagine if you could pop down to your local hardware store and, instead of a pickup truck or lawn aerator, you could rent an exoskeleton for your weekend chores: Clean gutters, trim tree branches, or wrestle aliens out of an airlock—only $19 for the first 75 minutes! (I would be a lot more enthusiastic about yard work if I could do it Ripley-style.)

Need to equip all your starship troopers for alien wrangling? Military research is on it. Last month the U.S. Army Research Lab released video of a prototype wearable gun rest called the Third Arm. It weighs only four pounds, but takes nearly thirty pounds of strain off the wearer’s arms, reducing fatigue and improving weapon stability. Total-body solutions are also in development: in May, Lockheed Martin revealed its ONYX exoskeleton, which looks like a set of athletic joint braces. Combining movement sensors and artificial intelligence-based software to predict movement, ONYX reduces the effort soldiers must expend to run, climb, and carry loads up to 100 pounds. Two batteries (presumably not included) will power the suit for up to eight hours. ONYX is reportedly a little too squeaky for stealth assaults, but represents the technology’s considerable promise for people in hazardous situations.

Army third arm

The “Third Arm” exoskeleton prototype takes weight off a soldier’s arms and helps stabilize weapons.

Exoskeletons can also help those wounded on the battlefield. Amputees and others with medical conditions can enjoy greater mobility with the support of such devices. These solutions aren’t yet affordable for many patients–some lower-body-only models cost around $30,000, while more sophisticated products can top $80,000–but may become more common as the technology evolves. Meanwhile, a budget alternative to the full metal jacket is a “soft” exosuit, clothing fitted with actuators that analyze body movement and apply support when needed. With many Americans living longer, powered leotards could become a trend in keeping senior citizens active and independent. (Elderly leader Everest in my Syzygy series relies on a mechanical exoskeleton for movement, but he’s got a rather more ambitious goal than a trip to the Shackleton Colony bingo hall.) Ongoing research promises even more sophisticated models in the future. MIT’s Biomechatronics Lab is pioneering a technique dubbed neuro-embodied design, which incorporates the mechanics of human locomotion into more naturally functioning exoskeletons and prosthetics.

Despite these innovations, exoskeleton engineering still faces several major challenges. One is power supply. Bulky batteries can make a suit unwieldy, while smaller energy systems may not keep it charged for long. There’s also the balance between power and practicality. For example, mechanized military armor may enhance a soldier’s protection and weaponry, but could prove too cumbersome to maneuver against more agile opponents. And even with an exoskeleton to lessen physical strain, our squishy ape brains are still vulnerable to mental fatigue and the stupid accidents that come with it. If I’d been wearing a powered exoskeleton yesterday, I still would’ve lunged to save my books; the sudden movement might’ve upset the suit’s equilibrium and sent me toppling down the cement stoop. Injuries, electrocution, getting trapped in a bent metal frame…user error could cause a lot of problems. (On the bright side, think of the sadistic gifs.)

So powered exoskeletons may not be quite ready for daily home use, but it’s still worth browsing the catalogue for a glimpse at tomorrow’s automated “activewear”!

What would your ideal exoskeleton allow you to do? How might our lives change if/when this technology becomes mainstream? Catalyze this LitLab experiment in the comments!

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