Perspecs Explains: What are exoskeletons?
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
Exoskeletons appear to be the stuff of fiction, reserved only for the realms of science fiction. But science fiction is becoming science reality, with the development of real-life Iron Men (and Women) that would put Tony Stark to shame.
As The Verge notes, exoskeletons are not new technology. The development of exoskeletons goes all the way back to at least the 1960s, with research papers and journals pointing to their design for mainly military purposes.
A powered exoskeleton is designed to augment the human body and its capabilities, making it stronger and quicker. It is no wonder that the military has had an interest in the technology, with the potential to "enable soldiers to run faster, carry heavier weapons and leap over obstacles on the battlefield", according to How Stuff Works. It could also protect them from bullets and bombs. Recent advances in electronics and material science is now making this stuff of fantasy a practical reality.
Levitate defines exoskeletons as "wearable machines that enhance the abilities of the people who use them". The technology can provide support and reduce fatigue, and even enable people in wheelchairs to stand up and walk again.
They add: "An exoskeleton and the person wearing it work together. It is truly a meeting of human and machine, with enormous benefits for the human."
Big companies like Panasonic and Ford have been employing exoskeletons in the workplace, aiding workers with heavy tasks. One of the suits used by Panasonic is designed to help carry loads as heavy as 220 pounds.
The exoskeleton market is set to spike, as the technology evolves and becomes more accessible. The market made $299.8 million in 2017, and it is on its way to a staggering $2.8 billion by 2023. North America held the largest share of the exoskeleton market in 2016, and it will continue to dominate it, according to ZDNet.
The rise of the technology, however, poses ethical questions. Prof Noel Sharkey, co-founder for the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, is worried that exoskeletons could result in humans working longer hours.
He told the BBC: "You could have exoskeletons on building sites that would help people not get so physically tired, but working longer would make you mentally tired and we don't have a means of stopping that.
"We design these systems and then ask whether it might be misused. We need ethical design from the start and I would design exoskeletons that switch themselves off after six hours."
Whether it is Tony Stark in Marvel's Iron Man or Ellen Ripley’s power loader in Aliens, exoskeletons seemed to be a technology out of our grasp, only existing in the imaginations of sci-fi writers. They are making their way from the big screen to real life, working with the military, entering the workplace, and helping those with disabilities.