The Rise of the Exoskeletons

Reprint of Machine Design Article by Jeff Kerns, January 8, 2015

Trends in sensors, power supplies, batteries, and other technologies are bringing even more potential to the field of developing exoskeletons.

Engineers relied heavily on motion-control technology to develop the first wearable exoskeleton at Cornell University, the Hardiman-1, in 1965. The arms, legs, and feet used electrohydraulic servos, while a hydromechanical servo controlled the hands. The hydraulics operated off of a 3,000-psi pump, letting the person in the suit lift up to 1,500 lb and walk at 1.7 mph. The suit itself, however, weighed almost 1500 pounds, making it too heavy and complex to warrant further funding.

Since then, sensors, materials, drives, and power supplies have undergone a host of incremental innovations. Companies developing exoskeletons no longer find it difficult to secure funding. Investors recognize that this technology has many potentially profitable applications. These include letting soldiers carry more weight for longer periods of time, aiding senior citizens and others who suffer musculoskeletal injuries, and giving longshoremen and warehouse workers a competitive advantage in the  shipping and trucking industries.

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