People who are interested in robotics are invariably interested in exoskeletons, as well. They're sort of an offshoot, after all, but perhaps more difficult to design and build at a price that anyone can think of as affordable.
Exoskeletons, sometimes referred to as wearable robots, are a collection of frames and braces that enable the user to stand erect and walk with a more-or-less natural gait. They are normally battery powered.
Those that are already on the market are becoming an important tool in the physiotherapists' toolbox, used by people learning to walk again after strokes or accidents.
Now, though, the market is expanding, as large companies like Honda, Raytheon and Daewoo attempt to develop exoskeletons for military use, and, by extension, the civilian market as well. It's a highly competitive business, and an American start-up called Ekso Bionics is trying to jump in and corner a share of it.
Ekso has developed a device it calls the Ekso Works Industrial Exoskeleton. It's unpowered, relying instead, on a number of counterweights with a standard, jointed arm. And the company is aiming its efforts directly at the construction industry.
The harness is made of carbon fibres and the frame that braces the user's legs is of metal tubing. The combination of harness and frame transfers the weight the arm is holding much as the Steadicam camera stabilizer mounts for motion picture cameras which mechanically isolate it from the operator's movement. It's that stabilizer mount that allows a cinematographer to get a smooth shot, even when moving quickly over uneven ground.
It's this combination of concepts that Ekso is aiming to bring to the construction industry. During a recent demonstration, a reporter for Wired magazine was strapped into the exoskeleton. He was then able to lift heavy weights over his head with virtually no effort. His initial efforts at walking were awkward, but improved with a little practice.
"A grinder that I'd previously had trouble holding above my head for more than a few minutes felt utterly weightless," he reported.
The reporter's verdict was that the device works as intended, but he wondered how it would be marketed, and whether the construction industry would accept it or not.
Ekso co-founder Russ Angold is aware of the problem. He's been through it with earlier products. Ekso has already developed powered walking suits for the physiotherapy market, and more than 4,000 people have used them.
Construction sites can be dangerous places, where injuries are often just a step away, and it's a tribute to the industry's awareness of those dangers that it has developed an enviable safety record. It's that awareness that could lead to the industry's acceptance of Ekso's exoskeleton and similar devices.
Still, price has to be a factor, and Ekso has seemed reluctant to discuss that, preferring instead to "focus on value." One financial analyst has said he thinks the device will retail for something around US$12,000.
Russ Angold, Ekso's co-founder and chief technology officer, says exoskeletons are still "in the awareness phase." He says he believes that industrial use alone will lead to faster, greater growth that Ekso has so far achieved in selling its device for physical rehabilitation.
The construction market is huge, Angold says. "We're talking hundreds of thousands of skilled trades workers that could use this technology today."
"There's a lot of workers out there who are highly skilled and highly paid, and if we can increase their productivity and reduce their injuries, there's a big value proposition there."
For companies, the use of exoskeletons could result in reduced time losses due to injury, and untold millions of dollars in worker compensation claims.
The devices might be expensive, but the potential advantages that might accrue to a construction firm owning a number of them clearly flags them as a new technology to be watched.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.