As some of you may or may not know, I’m interested in everything exoskeleton related. I’ve been messing around with my own designs for the past year or so, and just this past weekend, tested out the latest lower body design. There are a lot of boring (and some would say safe) ways to test this. But that’s no fun. For my test I used the lower-half of the exoskeleton to pick up a Mini Cooper.
You might remember my original upper-body design which was something I threw together in my garage as a proof of concept. It worked well for what it was, and surprisingly, took the internet by storm — amassing over a million views in a single week for a video of me curling 170lbs in my backyard. The fire had started — I knew I had to make something better. And that was the beginning of my quest to build a full-body powered exoskeleton.
The biggest problem with the original was a lack of back support — it didn’t matter how much weight I could lift, it was still my feeble human skeleton taking the weight. So it was time to go back to the drawing board, and start the design from the ground up.
Living the Dream
The project had been slow going with my time being taken up by pesky work, until just before Christmas when I decided to quit my full-time job as a Product Developer (I’m a mech engineer) and focus on exoskeletons, YouTube, and effectively become a “Hacker for Hire” — more on that in a future post!
Shortly after that, the German Science show Galileo reached out and asked if they could feature my new exoskeleton on their show — I agreed, and may or may not have promised them a feat of strength I wasn’t even sure I’d be capable of doing — lifting a car.
Like most engineers, I work best under pressure, so with less than a week to go before the interview, we started working on the legs. Getting the strength to lift a car was quite easy. I had a pair of 63mm bore diameter pneumatic cylinders, which at 125PSI are capable of lifting over 800lbs a piece. The fun part was attaching them to my body in order to do it.
Now truth-be-told, the cylinder mounts are not that elegant. Which is why I’m designing the exoskeleton to be completely modular — you can just remove the cylinders when you don’t need them — because you’re never going to be able to run with giant pneumatics like that. Not to mention we don’t possess arc reactor technology required to power an exoskeleton for any reasonable length of time…
Don’t Worry, They Lock
No, no, the real genius (if I do say so myself), is in the mechanical legs behind the cylinders. The locking joints that are able to take huge amounts of force.
Ratcheting joints on the exoskeleton allow me to take weight without any pressure or force going through my body. In the above test, we ran out of weights to put on the bar. The joints allow the exoskeleton to be flexible in free-float mode, which means I can even run with them — but provide amazing support and rigidity when required in locked mode.
Similar to the “chair-less chair”, exoskeleton legs like these could allow workers to work in awkward positions without straining their bodies. Or for a full-body solution, how about Lockheed Martin’s FORTIS exoskeleton?
While advancing battery technology will expand powered exoskeleton suits’ potential greatly, I believe the next breakthrough in functional exoskeletons is much more simple. It’s all about mechanical advantage.
The wheel, and then the bicycle revolutionized the transportation industry. It allowed humans to leverage mechanical advantage using gear-trains in order to do things they never could before. Like moving at speeds of over 120km/h under your own, very human, power.
We already use many tools that take advantage of leverage and gear ratios, so what if we could create an exoskeleton that did what the bicycle did for transportation, but instead allow humans to achieve super-human levels of strength for fields like construction, disaster relief, the military, and every other task that pushes past what our own bodies can handle?
That’s what gets me excited. Without any further ado, here are the final preparations, and then the big test.
Now obviously, leaving this project (and test!) to the last minute wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but hey, the German TV crew got to film a bit of the “making of” as we hurried to finish it that morning. We’ve learned a lot and have many things to improve on the design — you may have noticed in the video that the shin brace of the exoskeleton actually came undone during the first test! Luckily, it wasn’t catastrophic, and we were able to fix it before the final tests. If you’re interested in following the project further, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, where I post updates almost every week.
Way back in 2008 we covered real-life power suits. We’re probably going to need a refresher soon… but obviously none of those designs have taken off in a big way. You’ve never seen any one of them in use in real life, right? But all it will take is the right design seen through to the end.
If there’s anyone out there who’s working on their own human augmentation hardware we want to hear about it!