10 January 2014

World’s first affordable powered exoskeleton is almost here: Prepare for mech wars

The first affordable, mass-produced robotic exoskeleton will be on sale next year from Panasonic. For 500,000 yen, or slightly under $5,000, this full-body power garment will let you hoist 100-kilo (220-pound) objects and move at speeds up to 8 kph (5 mph). While this device would make a nice addition to any wardrobe, will it have immediate practical value, or will it mainly be purchased by hobbyists and educators as a base platform for mere experimentation?

Activelink, the Panasonic subsidiary responsible for the suit, plans to begin rollout of the first batch of 1000 starting in 2015. At its heart will be a lithium-ion battery pack that can provide for several hours of general purpose activity. We might suppose such activities would just be the familiar exoskeletal fare hefting small vats of nuclear soup in disaster situations, or carrying cases of munitions. However, if enough designers get hold of this potentially hackable, wearable toolbox, we might actually begin to see some interesting applications emerge.

While the suit might let you out thumb a lobster, the included grippers are no jaws of life. Lacking high-tech hydraulics, there will be no car crushing. Once some video of the suit performing some real field tests is released we might get a better idea of how fast, and accurate, under load, the suit might be. Where this exoskeleton may shine, would be if interchangeable tool systems can be developed to swap in for the grippers. The designers envision a suite of tools for things like hammering, drilling, or scooping operations, similar in fact, to those already designed into one the most innovative robotic systems ever built the Athlete rover now under testing at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Labs). It is probably worth mentioning a few things about this system, to give some idea of where practical exoskeletal worksuits could be headed.

The hexapodal Athlete is not an exoskeleton for a person; it is of a much larger scale, more of an exoskeleton for a car. Actually, it is a kind of car itself, having wheels affixed to one side of each end effector, and tool-changer interface on the other. In theory one could chop up a handful of Segways, and affix them to off-the-shelf Fanuc robotic arms using standard CNC tool holders on each end, but that does not seem to be what was done by JPL. I asked the head engineer on the Athlete program, Brian Wilcox, why they did not go with industry standards here. He indicated that in order to meet the stiff requirements for spaceflight (like weight, reliability, and withstanding harsh environmental conditions) hydraulics and heavy steel designs would be precluded.

That is unfortunate because a modern CNC tool interface, with clamping forces measured in tons of pressure, spindle “run-out” accuracies in ten-thousands of an inch, RPMs in the tens of thousands at 20-hp, and angular positioning to tenths of a degree, would make one heck of a hand. Once the limb hardware designs move into this regime, the major limitation will probably become one of control. Although we are owed a mind-controlled robot exoskeleton by the 2014 World Cup to make the opening kickoff, nervous control of actual tools will be a challenge. Wearable 3D printers giving one the ability to go from mental construct directly to physical construct, while imaginable, are still in the realm of fiction.

For now Panasonic is looking to partner with companies that can move the suit to the masses. Rental agreements, much like those which have been successful with the Segway are envisioned, and before too long we try one out at the local mall. The jury is still out however on whether the suit will remain little more than a gimmicky plaything, or something for the next year’s Craftsman catalog.


Now read: Students' robotic arm can make you stronger as superhero


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