Make AT not war!

The title might seem a bit strange but this post has to do with… war. Maybe not war itself but military in general.

It’s been years now that the military all over the world tries to make the most out of soldiers supporting them with exoskeletons. In the US for example the Berkley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) developed by UC Berkley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory Homayoon Kazerooni aims to “create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle”. The project was funded by DARPA and in 2004 and at that time it was the most advanced exoskeleton. UC Berkley is also behind of another newer military exoskeletons as well titled Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). HULC incorporates features from two other models of Berkley Robotics the ExoHiker and ExoClimber which were designed for carrying heavy loads during long missions and climbing stairs and steep slopes rapidly. Another DARPA funded project was the Sarcos exoskeleton which recently was improved by Raytheon to a newer stronger faster and better model titled XOS2. This exoskeleton, much like the Berkeley suit, works much like a human nervous system. A complex set of sensors act as nerves and hydraulics act as muscles.

The same lab has recently presented a new exoskeleton system called eLEGS aiming to help paraplegics and those with mobility disorder to stand and walk. eLEGS was selected as number 2 of the 10 Most significant Gadgets of 2010 by WIRED magazine. In addition, a similar project called Austin is also aiming to help individuals with mobility impairments to walk. However the project represents a series of technologies that lead to low-cost and therefore accessible exoskeletons. Argo Medical Technologies another US-based company have recently established Bionics Research Inc. which presented an exoskeleton for persons with mobility impairments called ReWalk. Its designers believe that the exoskeleton will be able to restore mobility to people with walking impairments and enhance their dignity, health, inclusion and self-esteem.

In Japan one of the most known examples of exoskeletons is HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb). It is developed in the Tsukuba University and aims to assist people with mobility impairments to improve their capabilities. There are currently two prototypes: HAL 3, which has bulkier servo-motors and only has the leg function, and HAL 5, which is a full-body exoskeleton for the arms, legs, and torso. HAL 5 is currently capable of allowing the operator to lift and carry about five times as much weight as he or she could lift and carry unaided.

In Europe, the Italian Ministry for Defence has financed research for an exoskeleton meant to help soldiers or civil protection personnel engaged in rescue operations in unstructured environment. Designed by TECIP (Information Technology and Perception) of the Sant’Anna Institute in Pisa, the AVATAR exoskeleton is expected to be commercialized by 2016. It has four robotic limbs (arms and legs), a force correspondent to that of 20 men and 22 “degrees of freedom”. Aside from civil protection, other field of operations might cover engineering in heavy manufacturing.  In France, engineering company RB3D has developed Hercules, a battery powered robotic exoskeleton that can carry 100 kg at regular walking speed.

The examples presented indicate a pattern of correlation between two domains that are regularly not considered to have any relationship. Assistive and military technologies. This pattern is usually refered as dual-use. It is a term used to refer to technology which can be used for both peaceful and military aims. More generally speaking, dual-use can also refer to any technology which can satisfy more than one goal at any given time. Thus, expensive technologies which would otherwise only serve military purposes can also be utilized to benefit civilian commercial interests – this is the case of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) which has already been presented earlier was developed to assist soldiers during combat. But Lockheed Martin the company behind it is also exploring exoskeleton designs to support industrial and medical applications. the same kind of exoskeletons that help soldiers carry all this heavy equipment can  also allow nurses to carry people with disabilities from bed to wheel chair, to a car etc. So, an exoskeleton originally conceived to help soldiers may not only help motor-impaired people to walk but also nurses lifting disabled patients out of bed or helping them walk such  as the Toyota Patient Transfer Assist and the RIKEN RIBA II robots, both developed in Japan. Exoskeletons are definately an area where dual-use could prove really beneficial for eAccessibility technologies.

Are there any other similar examples that could transform the slogan from make love not war to… make AT not war?

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