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Robotic Exoskeletons Giving (and Gaining) Support

Hydraulic-powered, mind-controlled support suits aren’t just for superheroes. Soon you might have to wear one to work. Larry Greenemeier reports

Sigourney Weaver wore one to take on the alien. Robert Downey, Jr. put one on and became Iron Man. And in real life, the robotic exoskeleton got an international audience this summer, when a paraplegic man wore a mind-controlled support suit to kick off the World Cup. You could say it was one small kick of the ball, but one giant leap to the day when people otherwise immobilized people could, well, take a giant leap.

Robotic exoskeletons have already shown up in the workplace. Last year the Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering shipyard in South Korea experimented with suits that let workers walk around carrying 65-pound slabs of metal like they were balsa wood. Now Daewoo wants to tweak the technology so suited-up workers can walk faster and have a greater range of motion.

Another place we’ll likely soon see exoskeletons is the battlefield. Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors are developing hydraulic-powered exoskeletons. Augmented military personnel could carry heavy loads and work longer before fatiguing.

Not exactly the Singularity that some people believe will someday inextricably combine human and machine. Perhaps this system is better—to become solely human again, all you have to do is remove the robotic exoskeleton. 

—Larry Greenemeier

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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