If you’ve always dreamed about what it would be like to don a metallic costume and gain superhuman strength…go watch the latest Avengers movie.
On the other hand, if you're a construction worker who wants to increase your endurance and avoid fatigue, strains and other common workplace injuries, the Modular Agile eXoskeleton (MAX) is already here.
Developed by California-based US Bionics, MAX is a comfortable, lightweight form made of steel, plastic and aluminum. Weighing in at just six kilograms, MAX assists workers by providing support for targeted muscles in the arms, shoulders, lower back and knees when they assume positions most likely to create injuries caused by muscle overload. While crouching, for example, the exoskeleton supports the worker in much the same way as a chair. Laboratory testing indicates the device can reduce muscle force required to complete tasks by as much as 50 per cent.
The device takes its cues from the movement of the worker. Small actuators translate the movement of the worker to the exoskeleton, activating and supporting workers when they perform hazardous manoeuvres, then deactivating when workers perform safe or neutral manoeuvres.
MAX is the brainchild of US Bionics' CEO and founder Homayoon Kazerooni, who has been developing powered exoskeletons for more than a decade. As Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, he led the development of such projects as the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) designed to increase endurance while assisting soldiers to effortlessly carry loads of up to 200 lbs. However, many of the working prototypes he developed remained prototypes.
"There was a lot of interest from funding agencies who were excited by movies like Iron Man, but no mass production, and no benefits to people at large," says Kazerooni.
"My focus is on the other end. What inspires me is the needs of workers — in particular construction workers who are suffering from preventable workplace injuries. I founded US Bionics because I wanted to produce low-cost and accessible exoskeletons, so that people could experience the benefits of these modern designs."
Initially, he concentrated on construction, shipbuilding and manufacturing work sites, testing prototype models in real-life settings in Seattle and Japan.
"What I discovered was that there wasn't really a need to assist workers in lifting heavy loads, because they already had the capability to do that, using hydraulic cranes, trolleys, forklifts and other devices," he says.
"Injuries were occurring from maintaining unnatural positions and holding simple tools for hours on end. Try lifting your arms in the air the whole time you're walking to the grocery store, then imagine holding a 10-lb. grinder over your head to appreciate what level of strain they're experiencing. What these workers most needed was a robust exoskeleton that both reduced targeted muscles stress and increased productivity."
Kazerooni also recognized that workers required a design they could wear comfortably for up to 12 hours a day while performing normal job functions, including climbing stairs and ladders, or driving trucks. The size and weight of the device was minimized to maximize user comfort.
The MAX exoskeleton can also be broken down into three modules: the Trunk Support Exoskeleton (TSE); the Leg Support Exoskeleton (LSE); and the Arm Support Exoskeleton (ASE).
"Field experiments were conducted to demonstrate the comfort and acceptance of workers in variety of construction activities," says Kazerooni.
"In testing, we recognized that some workers wanted to wear only those modules they needed to complete their daily tasks. For example, if you're spending all day in a crouching position welding rebar, then the LSE may be all you need. Each of these modules can operate independently of the overall MAX exoskeleton."
US Bionics intends to produce an initial order of 100 full MAX units for the North American market. While the initial models may arrive at a retail price of about US$10,000, Kazerooni is counting on larger production runs over five years to reduce the street price to less than US$5,000.
The company will soon also begin production of the Phoenix Medical Exoskeleton. Phoenix weighs just 12.25 kg and allows a person to walk with the assistance of canes, even if the user is paralyzed below the waist.
Kazerooni notes that he welcomes competitors to the field.
"That's the best way to help bring prices down and ensure that workers can enjoy the benefits these devices have to offer," he says.