These Iron Man-like 'exosuits' can morph us into mobility marvels

Lightweight exoskeletons - aka, exosuits - could take the load off your muscles during hikes or running errands. For our elderly and disabled, the benefits could be life-changing.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

An exosuit developed for running and walking at Chung-Ang University, S. Korea

Chung-Ang University

The hit Marvel character Iron Man was first dreamed up in 1961 but the popular film franchise starring Robert Downey Jr as ace inventor Tony Stark is so contemporary and fresh in our minds that the character's impregnable superhero suits still seem the stuff of science fiction.

Also: From automated to autonomous, will the real robots please stand up?

It turns out that they're not. In fact, the world of 'exoskeletons' of the kind that Iron Man wears is already here. 

Take a stroll into many a factory's loading bay, freight operations, and other areas that require the shunting around of heavy objects, and you may be shocked to see people in suits that don't look that far off from those worn by the likes of Iron Man.

Now, these aren't exactly geared to zoom about in mid-air launching projectile explosives at bad guys. However, what they can do --or rather, what the humans operating these from inside can do -- is pretty superhuman.

Workers wearing these suits are able to lift far heavier objects and work much longer shifts at levels that only machines are capable of.

Powered by batteries, hydraulics, wires, elastic bands, springs or whatever material seems to be best for the task at hand, work becomes play. All of a sudden, we as a species are suddenly on par with robots

What this means for most companies -- anxious to eke out an edge over competitors -- is a major boost in efficiency thanks to these exoskeletons.

Also: A backyard factory: How robots empower you to create your own products

According to one study, even a minimalist "exosuit" was able to reduce fatigue rates of the back muscles by as much as 86%. This translates to far fewer injuries on the job, greater productivity, and lower insurance costs

Some exoskeletons can even assist a specific limb. A glove dubbed the Iron Hand can boost hand strength by as much as 20% while gripping or hoisting heavy objects, through sensors and motors embedded in each finger.

Totally hip movement

The problem is, there's not much being made in the way of an everyday suit, something you can wear out to lug groceries or for a hike and then deposit on a coat hook right next to your jacket.

Until now, that is. 

Prof Giuk Lee from the mechanical engineering department at South Korea's Chung-Ang University is probably one of the busiest people in the exoskeleton world. 

He has two studies out at the same time that introduce two slightly different types of exoskeleton suits which promise to revolutionize mobility as we know it, and especially for people who have deteriorating or weak muscles, are amputees, or are otherwise medically compromised.

Also: AI in 2023: A year of breakthroughs that left no human thing unchanged

One of these suits, made up of decidedly non-Iron Man components such as a light fabric vest, belt, and svelte thigh wraps, and connected by wires and powered by a battery along with a small motor, weighs in at an impressively light 11 pounds.

But the main attribute that may enshrine it as a pioneering prototype is the way the suit is constructed to help in movement.

"Our recent paper was primarily inspired by the recognition that most wearable robots for gait assistance have focused solely on movements in the sagittal plane," says Lee in TechXplore. (The sagittal plane is longitudinal, from head to toe, dividing the body into two equal left and right halves).

"However, walking is inherently a three-dimensional activity, and movements in other planes are just as crucial," he adds.

Therefore, Lee and his team -- colleague Myunghee Kim is co-author of the paper -- decided to focus on the frontal plane, which separates the front half (anterior) of your body from the back (posterior), and provides lateral stability while walking.

Also: 10 ways Apple plans to revolutionize health tracking 

Their theory was that using natural hip abduction movement -- that is, movement of the leg in a fore-aft fashion and away from the body's midline – would reduce the effort undertaken by the body.

"As we walk forward, our body's center of mass naturally shifts side to side to maintain balance -- a process known as recovery. During this recovery phase, the hip abduction muscles are engaged. Our device assists these muscles, making it easier for the wearer to recover their center of mass with less effort," said Lee. 

After testing the efficacy of the suit, the results were emphatic: The exoskeleton reduced the metabolic cost of walking by 11.6% compared to normal, unassisted walking and will no doubt improve further.

Other studies have reached similar milestones. Stanford University documented one case where students were able to walk at a pace that was 40 percent faster, on average, while expending 2 percent less energy.

Also: The best fitness rings to kickstart your wellness goals

For those who suffer from mobility issues due to muscular atrophy, surgeries, amputations above the knee, suffer from Parkinson's and other medical conditions, or who are simply aging, these suits could prove to be miracle workers.

Run like a Bolt

Meanwhile, Lee and his team is simultaneously obsessed with another, more challenging problem -- could one use an exoskeleton suit to assist in sprinting?

They came up with a similar but slightly more heavy-duty suit, chronicled in Science Robotics, with a few more electrical motors attached to steel cables that in turn were affixed to the runner's thighs. When the motors start working they allow the cables to expand and contract much like work muscles do while running.

However, a greater challenge confronted the researchers: Running and walking employ different gaits and exoskeletons until now have found it difficult to differentiate between the two.

Also: The best fitness apps with live and on-demand workout classes

To solve this problem, the research team developed an algorithm to detect the kind of movement employed mid-stride so it could relay this to the apparatus, which would then adjust accordingly.

It was able to spot the correct gait more than 99.98% of the time.

Finally, the research team outfitted nine male runners -- amateurs, not professionals -- and had them each sprint 200 meters each, both with and without the suit. Again, the results were unequivocal: On average, the runners were 0.97 seconds faster with the suit versus without, as the MIT Technological Review reports.

Here is a glimpse of their efforts on YouTube.

Similarly, another Stanford study found that students could run about 15 percent more efficiently than normal on a treadmill thanks to a motorized frame attached to their shins and ankles.

Also: The best sports watches you can buy

Of course, no one is going to allow sprinters with exosuits to compete in the Olympics and upstage the likes of Usain Bolt -- and that's not the point.

These experiments do demonstrate that many out there -- like Prof Lee -- are obsessed with increasing mobility by focusing on pushing the boundaries of exosuits until they reach commercialization.

We are now very close to an era where we may soon see exosuits hanging in sports shops or on our coat pegs while unlocking new possibilities in the fields of work, play and better living in general. 

These pioneering experiments will be the ones to help us get there.

Editorial standards