Humans have been using mechanical advantages for thousands of years with pulleys and gears. When will we finally get to use the “real” mechanical advantage presented by superhuman exoskeletons? Let’s examine the technology currently out there and what’s to come.
So, exoskeletons do exist today, but in nowhere near the form that the days of science fiction past predicted. They are bulky devices that can amplify human capabilities, but otherwise are slow and have limited power and remote capabilities. Companies do already use exoskeletons for improving the capabilities of their workers. However, their use is mainly to combat strain from repetitive work rather than transforming workers into superhumans.
Raytheon has built a superhuman exoskeleton that amplifies worker’s capabilities. The device is fairly streamlined, but it is by no means minimalistic. It has to be hooked up to power and its response times are lacking at best. It still is certainly an exoskeleton, but one that frankly doesn’t have any real world use.
The global exoskeleton market is growing as the technology reaches a point of viability. Grand View Research suggests that the entire market will be valued at 3.3 Billion USD by 2025. Whether it be manufacturing or warfighting, there is a significant need for exoskeleton technology. If there is so much need, then what is holding back mechanical engineers and designers from creating a functional and useable exoskeleton?
By far the biggest thing keeping developers from the future of exoskeletons is the power source. Since Tony Stark’s arc reactor doesn’t exist, engineers are left to choose mainly from an array of batteries, based on practicality. The Cyberdyne HAL exoskeleton can run on battery power for nearly 3 hours. This is not an insignificant amount of time, but it would mean that one factory worker would need 2 exo-suits, or 3 battery charges, to get through a workday. This is a far cry from the functionality we might have hoped for. Packing as much juice as is needed into an exoskeleton to allow it to last the entire day just isn’t feasible given modern battery technology.
The other major problem with modern exoskeleton technology is found in safety controls. These are machines made to interface very directly with the human body. If something is done that causes a malfunction in the machine, serious injury could result to the user. This has left most larger exoskeletons relegated to laboratory studies.
There is no question that additive and generative design technologies will play a big part in the future of exoskeleton technology. Since reducing weight is a major factor in their design, organic latticing and generative structuring may help designs to interface more naturally with the human user. Right now, the field of mechanical design has evolved to a point that the problems presented with exoskeletons are easily solved. As batteries continue to shrink and become capable of storing more power, the days of commercial lightweight exoskeletons may be upon us.