The Human Exo-skeleton…coming soon?

While cruising Netflix for something decent to watch with my teens, I came across a “TED Talk” on the topic of exoskeletons. (See Researcher Eythor Bender of Berkeley Bionics presented the technology behind a robotic suit, that has been developed for military and adaptive purposes. A soldier appeared on stage to demonstrate how he could carry hundreds of pounds of equipment with ease while wearing the exoskeleton. A wheelchair user stood up from her chair and walked across the stage, for her first walk in almost 20 years. As an ergonomist, it was hard for me to sit still and quietly as I watched. So many questions! So many ideas and applications!
In industry, many of our clients use somewhat clunky mechanical hoists to assist in manual handling. While the exoskeleton was still rather cumbersome, it’s not difficult to imagine a sleeker version that just amps up the human’s strength. Where will this lead? Can you imagine a human worker with dexterity and brainpower, with the strength of a robot? It sounds pretty appealing.
Of course, the pessimist side of me also pipes up….what if the device fails? I wouldn’t want to suddenly find myself carrying 200 lbs. How would the human body respond to this new type of loading? Will muscles atrophy to the point that we can’t function without an exoskeleton? Would our joints still have a full range of motion, or will they eventually move only in the ranges that the device permits? Would we wear the device over our clothing or under, and how would it fit/feel?
As I watched the military and rehabilitative applications that Bender and his associates are working on, I hope that industrial applications are not far behind. So I went searching to see what I could find on the internet. And alas, Ekso Bionics is working on industrial applications, including suits for workers in the construction industry. They plan to have a suit ready for market in 2014. (See )
I hope that ergonomists are involved in developing these devices; it seems to me that “fitting the worker” will be a pretty key principle here. I am known for getting excited about new inventions, and applications that take technology from one field and apply it to another. This adaptive technology is super-exciting! I can hardly sit still to wait for what comes next!

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