The Land Warrior system post got me interested in the concept of exoskeletons. Primarily I was wondering about how nanomachines are being used in the creation of human performance augmentation systems. I realize that nanomachines for human performance augmentation are not the same as exoskeletons, but they share the same goals. The basic aim of human performance augmentation and exoskeletons is to improve the strength, agility, perception, and speed of a person. Most of the research currently being done on exoskeleton type systems has been sparked by a grant from DARPA for the Land Warrior System (aka Future Warrior System). As such most of the work has military implications. Some people may be familiar with the image of the projected Future Warrior System future of a US soldier pictured to the left. I will auspiciously avoid communication, perception, gps location, and weapons systems in this article. Even avoiding some key topics, this is a huge topic covering many aspects of biology, kineseology, materials science, computing, robotics, and more. I will try to be brief.
As I said, I was primarily interested in how nanomachines are being used to allow people to be faster and stronger. The basic idea behind this was conveyed by RangerMade.us in this undated overview article on the Future Warrior System.
"In the shoulder of the Future Force Warrior uniform is a fabric filled with nanomachines that mimic the action of human muscles, flexing open and shut when stimulated by an electrical pulse. These nanomachines will create lift the way muscles do and augment overall lifting ability by 25 to 35 percent. "Think of yourself on steroids, holding as much weight as you want for as long as you want," said Atkinson.
"It will also allow a 90 pound male or female to carry a 250 pound male or female off of the battlefield and it wouldn't feel like they were carrying 250 pounds worth of person."
I was unable to find more information on the web about how this use of nanomachines is preceding. My tentative conclusion is that this idea has been put on the back burner by researchers with deadlines. The majority of the activity in creating usable exoskeletons is being done by the University of California-Berkeley and Sarcos Research Corp. These two groups were chosen by DARPA in 2003 to work on their exoskeletons for human performance augmentation (EHPA) project. With a $50 million dollar price tag, and actual delivery dates their approach must be viewed as the most pragmatic. The project is slated to run 5 years. Expect to see something cool, if not scary by 2008.
I didn't find a whole lot of information about Sarcos project. But it appears as though they are aiming to create a system of braces that mimics and reinforces the movements of the wearer. The Sarcos exoskeleton prototype is pictured the right.
Berekely is apparently taking the same approach to building the exoskeleton. Although Berekely has released more information about their project. Called the Berekely Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX), their project focuses on adding lower body strength to the wearer. It is evidently run by propane. Testing was done in 2004 running the exoskeleton attached to a tether. It also allowed the wearer to carry an additional 80 pounds 'without feeling it'. An abstract of the past work of the Berekely Lab can be found at this link.
I can't help but think that fabrics are the way to go for future civilian uses. One example that comes to mind is HoloFiber, which supposedly increases the amount of oxygen in the wearers blood. Although that example sounds a little hookey - the concept is solid. In a broader scope, DARPA is also looking into fabrics that can monitor the status of the individual wearing them. Primarily these fabrics look at the heat signature and heart rate of the wearer to determine if they are in physical condition to fight.
Lest we begin to think that this has nothing at all to do with space programs, I have attached a pdf document that analyzes various exoskeleton technologies for use in the space program. They also look much more into the use of fabrics and body coatings to protect the wearer from the environment and enhance their abilities. I particularly like the 'spray on' space suit idea, where a thin coat of material is applied to a person in a shower-like device.
My reasearch into this idea brought up the interesting possibility of the use of ferro magnetic fluids as body armor. But I have written enough for now, so this will need to be a future article.