Homemade Superhero: [James’] DIY Exoskeleton

Exoskeleton Lift

We’re not just a bunch of monkeys with typewriters here at Hackaday; we don our hacker hat whenever our schedules allow. Or, in the case of Hackaday’s own [James Hobson]—aka [The Hacksmith]—he dons this slick exoskeleton prototype instead,turning himself into a superhero. Inspired by the exoskeleton from the film Elysium, this project puts [James] one step closer to the greater goal of creating an Iron Man-style suit.

For now, though, the exoskeleton is impressive enough on its own. The build is a combination of custom-cut perforated steel tubing and pneumatic cylinders, attached to a back braces of sorts. In the demonstration video, [James] stares down 170 pounds of cinder block affixed to a barbell, and although he’s no lightweight, you can tell immediately from his reaction how much assistance the exoskeleton provides as [James] curls the makeshift weights over and over. And that’s only at half pressure. [James] thinks he could break the 300 pound mark of lifting if he didn’t break his legs first.

There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of the build process to be had, so make sure you stick around after the jump for a sizable helping of videos, and check out [The Hacksmith’s] website for more of his projects.

The final exoskeleton test:

Some exoskeleton build log videos. More on his channel!


44 thoughts on “Homemade Superhero: [James’] DIY Exoskeleton

      1. I agree. The hacker movement is a perfect home for exoskeletons. I imagine the most difficult thing (besides the obvious energy portability problem) is the feedback and control loop. That can be hacked and refined if enough people work on it.

        1. Energy portability isn’t a problem – that’s what internal combustion engines were invented for. Hook up either a hydraulic pump to a 2-stroke engine, and you’ve got the highest power-to-weight ratio this side of a turboshaft.

          And then there are turboshaft engines…

        2. I think the main problem is designing it not to break your arms. To let it use the limbs as control inputs, without putting much force into them. Same thing for the legs, where they need to bear all the weight, but use your own sense of balance, detected through your own leg / foot / hip movements to balance themselves. You could have the sense of balance done by gyroscopes but that would decouple the loop from your legs and any sort of walking would be doomed to falling over a lot.

          It’s a mechanical issue really, bit I bet it’s difficult to cover every detail. And I’d want to, if my eminently snappable bones were between 170 lbs of concrete and a piston that can lift that.

    1. I am a bodybuilder. Curling 170lbs is no joke especially for a dude that likely weighs that or less. I could do it once or twice at most. I look forward to your video proving otherwise!

      As another said, lower back strength is the key in something like this. Resisting the force pulling you forward, especially when reaching 2/3 your body weight (obviously 170lbs is easier for a 300lb person even with moderate muscle.) I hope his exoskeleton locks his back. If not, add it and he can likely at least double the amount of weight he can lift.The arms can take the weight, but pulling vertebrae apart is dangerous.

      1. This REALLY looks dangerous. You know, Ripley didn’t wear her powerlifter – she stood inside it, and IT carried all the weight. There is no reason at all to be putting the load on the user’s back and legs.

        1. Yeah the initial pickup of the bar wasn’t very good. The backpack limited my flexibility which prevented me from doing proper dead lift form. As for supporting the weight while standing? No problem. I dead lift 250lbs in the gym for sets.

          As for Ripley’s powerlifter — that’s another project I’d like to pursue. Financial backing is what is stopping me. The hydraulics alone would run over $5000 probably.

    2. I’m hoping this is sarcasm. Just for reference, he’s a video of the world record(previous, not sure what it is today) strict bicep curl, 225 lbs:

      Most people would need to be going to the gym for a few years to even curl over 120 or 130. If you went to your local gym and curled 170 you’d probably be curling the most there, including guys who could bench 400+. I have to guess that you’ve never lifted before.

      1. In my youth,(early 20s) I curled 75lbs dumbbells (the one handed ones, for those that dont know). The only reason I rarely went above that was because my soft womanly hands would get really bad blisters right there where the fingers attach to the hands. My skin just wasnt tough enough to handle 100+ lbs. I could do it, it just didnt feel good.

        Your assertion that curls are so hard that guys who bench 400+ cant do them is a bit absurd. Its two different exercises. I could bench 300+ and curl 200, but I could never in my life do a pullup. Does that mean pullups are hard? NO. It just means that I either neglected to strengthen that muscle group enough or I trained it to be good at other motions to the detriment of the pullup motion which I never cared about to begin with.

        1. I just flat out don’t believe you. Soft hands are not something bodubuilders are known for. Maybe in your own mind you could bench 300 and curl 200, but if you could lift that weight your form was complete garbage. See above. If you were curling 200 then you are amongst the strongest in the world for upper arm strength and no normal shirt would fit. Thirty inch biceps are a hell of a thing to see. You would be a walking freak, as is the goal with lifting. Soft hands. Nonsense.

  1. I decided to test the limits of my leg strength one day. Found I could leg press 450lbs. at least once, taking great care to move slowly and with proper form. And felt I could do more, but was afraid to try. Now I’m far from a muscle man, so I don’t think there’s any reason [James] would break a leg lifting 300lbs. But I’d be concerned about his back. Even at 170lbs., most folks’ back can technically support the weight, it’s more an issue of being accustomed to properly controlling that much weight; and without that control you’re risking injury.

    Pretty darn cool exoskeleton though.

    1. Leg press is a hell of a lot different than a proper squat though.

      I can leg press about 660lbs/300kg but can only squat 140kg/308lbs.

      And no, “technically” most people’s back wouldn’t support 170lbs simply because they’d be doing it wrong.

  2. This looks quite a good build. I’m actually quite surprised that at least an industrial exoskeleton a’la Aliens haven’t come true. What are the blocking factors from making such a thing a reality? Is it simply because it’s not all that useful compared to a forklift, so there’s really no need for one? I can’t imagine it’s a technical factor because I’m fairly sure we have all the necessary technology to make one.

      1. FYI, the video is supposed to start at the 12:43 ish mark. Its not starting from there with me even though I specified that I want my link to start there, so just in case it doesnt start there, move it to that mark and start from there.

      2. Just to answer your question directly, from what I have gathered, its just a matter of research, funding, and time. There are groups working on this (like the one in the video), but no projects (that I am aware of) have made it to the mainstream because they are still in development.

        1. Good stuff! But, they’re much more advanced than what I have in mind. I’m thinking something exactly like what they have in Aliens which is basically a wearable forklift, if you will. Wouldn’t something simpler, compared to the ones featured in the Nova video, like that be useful?

          1. Actually, I have just found an older article relating to the exact suit you are referring to:
            And I think that both are equally useful but in different situations. Suits such as the one from Alien would be more for moving bulky objects, whereas the smaller suits could be for combat/search and rescue operations in places where the larger suit cannot easily access (such as an unstable building in the aftermath of an earthquake).

    1. The question is what is the difference between a exoskeleton and a man sitting in a forklift. The controls seen in fictional exoskeletons are bizarre and make no sense from a usability perspective. Exoskeletons seem to be more “general purpose” than most machines but that’s rarely a needed feature in a production environment where specialized tooling increases output by a huge amount. Why have a man in a exoskeleton lift huge loads when a crane or forklift can do the same thing?

    2. When a human walks, the downward force on the forward leg peaks at about 3x body weight.

      Think about how strong the deck on Sulaco would have to be to handle the multiplied impacts from the feet of those heavy loaders.

      The loader was created just to enable the Ripley VS Alien queen battle. Anything it could lift would be easier to do with a small forklift.

      Where such a rig would be useful is on uneven or loose surfaces where forklifts would tip over or the wheels would dig in *and* space is too restricted for a large lift with big tracks or wheels.

      But even then there’s still jobs that it couldn’t replace a LULL 644E-42.

  3. It must be a heavy pipe because four 8″ concrete blocks should only weigh 152 pounds. If you want heavy block then you want 12″ custom split face block. They weigh about twice as much. I spread a job where we used those. Spreading is when you take the blocks off the pallet and stack them on the line where masons use them. I can do one in each hand, but I got to go all day you know? I ain’t got no exoskeleton up a scaffold either.

    That job was so brutal that when it was done I took a block home just to remind me. I haven’t had to be reminded of it yet either. Of course I grabbed a sash block ,no pussy half corner like this guy is curling. Sash blocks are the heaviest variety, in case you don’t know.

    A word to the wise. Don’t pick heavy stuff up, or you’ll end up on a table getting your guts cut open like I did. My hernia was so bad that when the examining physician saw the scans he avoided me like I was contagious, or something. The last I saw of him, once he saw what was wrong with me, he was running off, shouting, I’m calling a surgeon right away! They did give me the best pain killers they had though, no questions asked! You want Dilaudid. It’s smooth after a few shots of morphine to loosen you up. They had me more pumped up with dope than an East side junkie.

    But they had to, because it hurt that bad. Know the scene at the end of Braveheart where they’re tearing his guts out? You’ll know how Mel would have felt if it was real. I’ve broke a few bones, some big ones, that is a nasty pain, but the hernia I had, might have been worse. You want to avoid that.

    1. sch 80 1.25″ steel pipe weighs in @3#/ft looks like about 5 ft there so that is 15lbs the last 3 lbs is probably made up with the (2)pipe couplers and variance with the blocks (I imagine wet/dry blocks could easily have an extra lb or 2 difference with four together)

  4. Some one or another tiny processor board. Hobbyist code. Powerful actuators. Heavy objects. Homebuilt exoskeletons. It’s probably already too late to start a pool for the date of first compound fracture. But then again back in my day it was engines, wheels, welding, and skull fractures. So yes, we are progressing! …I think.

  5. I look forward to his video when he connects the lower body to the upper body. Right now there’s a scary amount of shear on his lower back and his legs aren’t accustomed to balancing (on grass!) an extra 170 lbs up at shoulder height.

    This may be the start of a whole new nerd power-lifting federation- the Pneumatically-Assisted.

    1. A few did on YouTube so I was all like “I build a freaking exoskeleton and you guys ask me where I got my Iron Man wife beater…”


      (seriously though, I do enjoy that shirt)

  6. I watched a couple of these videos as they came out. I actually subscribe to this guy via a RSS feed, not bloody g+. But 17 video’s about his one build was a bit too much. 2 or 3 should have covered everything relevant.

  7. I think the main problem is designing it not to break your arms. To let it use the limbs as control inputs, without putting much force into them. Same thing for the legs, where they need to bear all the weight, but use your own sense of balance, detected through your own leg / foot / hip movements to balance themselves. You could have the sense of balance done by gyroscopes but that would decouple the loop from your legs and any sort of walking would be doomed to falling over a lot.

    It’s a mechanical issue really, bit I bet it’s difficult to cover every detail. And I’d want to, if my eminently snappable bones were between 170 lbs of concrete and a piston that can lift that.

  8. used to lift 4 breeseblocks at a time , it isnt 170lbs though they dont way more than a bag of cement
    thing is even if the exoskelleton can lift more hin back and legs will bent over and snap like twigs it might work if the arms awe ancored to sumting solid like a oberheadcrane tough that wuld make the lifted part just about weightless for the person operating the arms

  9. Hi James..

    Seriously neat build! The best part for me was how you impressed yourself in the video, and obviously that pssss sound it makes!

    I think one little change that will make it possible to curl the max weight without building the rest of the exoskeleton would be to fit a proper kidney belt.

    The really large hiking back packs designed to put >30kg on your back has a really broad, padded kidney belt that goes all the way around your waist and is connected directly to the frame. If properly fitted, most of the weight of the pack goes straight to your hips and legs instead of your shoulders and back.

    I see you have a proper frame there already, but that thin strap around your middle is only going to help for stability where it could potentially take some of the weight completely off your back!

    Stoked to see version 2!

    1. Thanks Daniel!

      I actually based the frame off of a camping backpack, (those are where the straps came from), it just didn’t have a nice big kidney belt as you said. Great idea though — I am planning on giving it legs so the weight is just transferred all the way to the ground, but I think having a better belt would make it altogether more solid.

      I can’t wait to see version 2 as well!

  10. This is a great proof-of-concept, but to have any function, it MUST have a structure extending to the ground. Bad things will happen when you try to pick up something too heavy and instead of the object moving, your shoulders move down, through your spine.

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