Robotic suit could usher in super soldier era

By | May 21, 2008

Rex Jameson bikes and swims regularly, and plays tennis and skis when time allows. But the 5-foot-11, 180-pound software engineer is lucky if he presses 200 pounds — that is, until he steps into an “exoskeleton” of aluminum and electronics that multiplies his strength and endurance as many as 20 times.

With the outfit’s claw-like metal hand extensions, he gripped a weight set’s bar at a recent demonstration and knocked off hundreds of repetitions. Once, he did 500.

“Everyone gets bored much more quickly than I get tired,” Jameson said.

Jameson — who works for robotics firm Sarcos Inc. in Salt Lake City, which is under contract with the U.S. Army — is helping assess the 150-pound suit’s viability for the soldiers of tomorrow. The suit works by sensing every movement the wearer makes and almost instantly amplifying it.

The Army believes soldiers may someday wear the suits in combat, but it’s focusing for now on applications such as loading cargo or repairing heavy equipment. Sarcos is developing the technology under a two-year contract worth up to $10 million, and the Army plans initial field tests next year.

Before the technology can become practical, the developers must overcome cost barriers and extend the suit’s battery life. Jameson was tethered to power cords during his demonstration because the current battery lasts just 30 minutes.

But the technology already offers evidence that robotics can amplify human muscle power in reality — not just in the realm of comic books and movies like the recently debuted “Iron Man,” about a wealthy weapons designer who builds a high-tech suit to battle bad guys.

“Everybody likes the idea of being a superhero, and this is all about expanding the capabilities of a human,” said Stephen Jacobsen, chief designer of the Sarcos suit.

The Army’s exoskeleton research dates to 1995, but has yet to yield practical suits. Sarcos’ technology sufficiently impressed Raytheon Co., however, that the Waltham, Mass.-based defense contractor bought Sarcos’ robotics business last November. Sarcos also has developed robotic dinosaurs for a Universal Studios‘ “Jurassic Park” theme park ride. – yahoo

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