Exoskeletons Drafted for the Military
Good old science fiction. So often predicting what is to come in the future. If you’ve seen Aliens you might be familiar with a certain famous movie quote that involves Ripley, an oversized exoskeleton and a nasty looking queen. Attempts at creating real-world exoskeletons have been made before, but they’ve always been a tad cumbersome. Technology has advanced and so has the concept.
Extended missions in the field require lots of gear and all that gear can weigh quite a bit. Soldiers are often expected to carry up to 120 lbs of equipment through rough terrain. Over the course of several days, this can become exhausting and lead to less than optimal performance.
A French company named RB3D is developing a lower body exoskeleton called Hercule that is intended to assist soldiers in the field. Hercule is strapped to the legs of a soldier and provides additional support to carry heavy loads. No external controls are required. The exoskeleton responds to the movements of the wearer and provides load bearing assistance as he walks.
RB3D calls this system (and other similar systems currently in development) “cobots,” which is shortened from collaborative robots. The Hercule assists the user by supporting up to 220 lbs (100 kg) of weight. The system is battery powered and can operate continuously at a steady walking pace of 4 km/hour for about 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles). Further, the system is designed not to impede a soldier’s movement, allowing them to crawl, jump and run.
Lockheed Martin is developing a similar system which they have dubbed the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). Lockheed Martin wants a system that can provide up to 200 lbs (a little over 90 kg) of load bearing assistance. The HULC currently runs on batteries, but Lockheed Martin is looking into using more advanced fuel cells to power the exoskeleton that are capable of providing 72 hours of continual use. This system is also designed not to impede a soldier’s movement.
Both the HULC and the Hercule use hydraulics to power the exoskeletons, combined with computer-assisted sensors and electronics to control the systems. The HULC can be fitted with additional support modules to aid soldiers in picking up heavy loads in the form of attachments. Rather than provide similar attachments for their exoskeleton, RB3D is at work developing exoskeleton arms that can provide a similar service for upper body support as the Hercule does for lower body.
Both systems have obvious uses outside the military as well. Any job in which heavy lifting is an everyday activity could benefit from exoskeleton assistance. Both companies are looking into how to best adapt their systems for industrial and medical applications. At this point, battery life seems to be the Achilles’ heel of the systems (just like it is for electric cars).
Below you’ll find videos featuring both the HULC and the Hercule.