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Powered exoskeletons are beginning to become a more regular feature in factories and workshops to allow staff to do more power/strength intensive tasks without the risk of injury. The most recent company to do so is car manufacturer Ford who have introduced 75 of them to workers at two of their factories.
A powered exoskeleton is a wearable mobile machine that is attached to the human body and is powered by a system of electric motors, pneumatics, levers and hydraulics or a combination of technologies that allow for limb movement with increased strength and endurance.
The first device of this type was developed by a Russian by the name of Nicholas Yagn in 1890 using compressed gas bags to store energy that would assist the user with their movements however, it required human power to help operate it. In 1917, Leslie Kelly developed a pedomotor, an exoskeleton which was powered by steam.
The Real Deal
The first ‘real’ exoskeleton was developed by General Electric and the US Armed forces in the 60’s. Powered by hydraulics and electricity, the suit allowed the wearer to amplify their strength by a factor of 25, so that lifting 25 kilograms was as easy as lifting one kilogram without the suit. The project ultimately failed due to the cumbersome nature of the exoskeleton (it weighed about 680 kg) and a particularly slow response time, but the foundations had been laid.
Further development of human exoskeletons was continued at the Mihailo Pupin Institute, leading to the development of the world's first active exoskeletons in 1969. Further developments by the Belgrade Orthopaedic Clinic in 1972 led to the use of exoskeletons for the rehabilitation of paraplegics and similar disabled persons.
Uses of Exoskeletal Suits
Military – Benefits to an army soldier wearing an exosuit would be reduced fatigue and increased strength. This would allow the soldier to carry heavier loads, armour and weaponry over any terrain whilst running or climbing. By reducing the load on the soldier, this also helps maintain their energy levels and help lower their metabolic rate.
Factories – Similar to the soldier, an exosuit would allow workers to endure more energy intensive tasks and lift/move heavy loads. It would also help workers who have to stand in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time by reducing the stress on their bodies.
Medical – Improving the quality of life of people incapacitated due to illness or injury. A clear example being someone who has lost the function of their legs, an exosuit would provide assistive technology to enable system-assisted walking. Likewise, people with spinal injuries could use exosuits to help with rehabilitation.
Another field of medicine is the potential to aid surgeons with enhanced precision surgery as well as to help nurses carry or move patients.
Emergency Services – Firefighters and rescue workers could benefit from exosuits to help assist them in dangerous situations and rescue missions. They could help with lifting heavy equipment to areas that need it or carry survivors away from danger.
So, whilst exoskeletons have been around for a while, the potential for them is huge and as technology evolves, they will only improve further over time to become more efficient, lightweight and stronger.
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