Exoskeleton First: Workers Don Suit for Heavy Lifting
It’s always exciting when concepts from science fiction migrate to the real world, but it can be tricky to determine when a sci-fi tech has truly arrived.
Take, for instance, the idea of robotic exoskeletons — a sci-fi staple from Aliens to Iron Man. Real-world exoskeletons have been around for a few years now in various proposal and prototype scenarios, but we haven’t seen any large-scale commercial deployment — until now.
According to a report from the August issue of New Scientist, the massive South Korean corporation Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering has already begun outfitting shipyard workers with wearable exoskeletons for heavy lifting duties.
After a successful pilot program last year, Daewoo is in the process of rolling out the exoskeletons for regular use in the shipyards. The 60-pound units — made of carbon, steel and aluminum alloy — support themselves when attached, so that the worker feels no extra weight. Workers actually strap their feet into anchored boots, which serve as the base for the rig’s backpack and lifters.
When used to lift heavy pieces of metal or piping, the exoskeleton can handle it’s own weight and then some — about 70 pounds. Designers hope to increase that number to more than 200 pounds in the near future. The hydraulically powered units can run for about three hours on a single battery charge. For certain specialized tasks, some units even feature an attachment that arcs over the workers head like a personal, miniaturized crane.
Naturally, there are still a few bugs in the system. The exoskeleton footpads don’t handle slippery or inclined surfaces very well, and the rigs don’t accommodate much in the way of twisting motion.
Still, it’s a big step forward for what has long been a strictly sci-fi technology. Having just returned from the gym, I see tremendous potential for this tech in the weight room, though I concede that I may be missing a critical point, fitness-wise.