Is everyone as psyched as I am about the new Iron Man movie? I’ve never read any of the ironman comics but any self-respecting geek should love the idea of a powered exoskeleton suit that turns the user into, pretty much, a super hero.
I haven’t seen the movie yet but the preview looks great. We all know that previews mean jack but I’ve read some good reviews as well. Worst-case scenario, the movie sucks and I’m out 10 bucks but I can’t imagine the visuals being a disappointment.
The iron man suit or exoskeleton is the real star of this movie. I’ve really been into the idea of a suit like this when I saw a prototype over 20 years ago. Then I read Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers. I remember only two concrete things from that book. The evil alien “Bugs” we were at war with and the powered exoskeleton armor the mobile infantrymen wore. I believe Heinlein popularized this idea before anyone. Thanks Bob.
What about reality though? How close are we actually to a real Ironman suit?
There’s actually a bunch of powered exoskeletons in development and in various stages of readiness but my favorite is the result of a 75 million dollar DARPA program called Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation. Three teams were involved in the full-body project but only the Sarcos team has advanced to the next stage. Sarcos is a robotics manufacturer and a division of defense contractor Raytheon. Their lightweight aluminum suit is called XOS, which must be short for exoskeleton.
If Ironman has Tony Stark, the mad genius behind XOS is uber robotics engineer Steve Jacobson. He and his engineers have created the most capable exosuit yet. The idea was to create a mechanical shadow for a person. Every move you make is perfectly mimicked by the exoskeleton. This requires sensors sampling and analyzing the host’s movement hundreds and even thousands of times a second. The goal is to stay in light contact with the wearer and never get out of contact.
It’s important to offer no resistance to the wearer. Even a small amount would eventually be fatiguing. Check out the video of this thing. You see someone doing pulldowns with 200 pounds like it was nothing. The test subject has done 500 reps before and only quits due to the boredom.
Adi Granov, one of the main artists of the comic and a consultant to the film, watched a clip of the suit, he was actually startled. “I knew that’s where we were heading, but I didn’t realize we were this close,” he says. Not counting the lack of flight and weapons, he adds, “that’s Iron Man.”
The biggest initial problem for anyone designing an exosuit is to determine how the interface will work. Ironman uses a neural interface. This has the problem of not being possible…yet. The non-military HAL 5 exosuit actually reads the minute electrical signals muscles give off but this method has a learning curve for every new user. You can jump right into an XOS and start using it immediately with only 6 points of contact between you and the machine.
I love how Jacobson did a proof of concept for this back in 2000. He took the company’s staff photographer and his daughter and had her stand on daddy’s feat facing outwards. She then held his hands and started moving around. After a little practice, she was able to lead him around as some sort of bio-exosuit. This proved to Jacobson that given just a few points of contact, a smart machine could interpret the intended movements of its user. It was this little breakthrough that convinced him to submit a proposal to the military.
What’s the future like for XOS?
Well they’re currently working under a new 2 year 10 million dollar army grant. Go Army!
This summer they’ll launch a new research program to develop a generator that can power the suit for hours at a time. They’re also working on drastically cutting power consumption by, among other things, making the legs more human-like in their efficiency.
Jacobson sees his latest 4.0 version of XOS as a base vehicle which could be modified to be task-specific to health care, emergency response, war etc. He even says that future models may even operate autonomously, “You could get out and tell it, ‘Why don’t you go in that building, because I don’t want to'”