Italian engineers have unveiled a new creation called “The Body Extender,” which functions as an exoskeleton into which human beings can be strapped. The machine was created at the Perceptual Robotics Laboratory (Percro) and can be used to protect and carry humans. It can also be used to move heavy items. The word “exoskeleton” describes the outer shells or skeletons that provide animals and insects such as lobsters, crabs, grasshoppers, and cockroaches protection against their predators as well as support.
According to Percro’s Fabio Salsedo, exoskeletons such as the Body Extender could be very helpful to humans as well. Not only could it be used in manufacturing applications where assembly of complex machinery such as airplanes requires a great amount of flexibility and strength, but also in the aftermaths of large-scale disasters, where rescuing victims quickly without doing further harm may require something with much more flexibility than a human being could provide.
The Body Extender is described by Salsedo as the “most complex wearable robot” that has ever been created. It not only has the ability to record the intricate movement of humans, but it can also magnify human force 10 times more than the human inside the machine supplies. Each of the robot’s hands has the ability to lift approximately 110 lbs., which gives the person wearing the exoskeleton incredible strength, including the ability to pick up and throw heavy items farther than a human being ever could. Built of modular components and with electric motors to activate each of the 22 points of movement in the machine, the exoskeleton is easy to customize to each application for which it is used.
Argo Medical Technologies in Israel, which also researches and creates exoskeletons, has created the ReWalk, a device that was developed to be used in the medical field. ReWalk is designed to aid those who have disabilities in their lower extremities by allowing them to walk with crutches. Although it has been approved in Europe, the FDA has yet to follow suit. The associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai, Dr. Ann Spungen, has researched ReWalk and found evidence that it is beneficial physically and emotionally to those who have suffered injuries to their spinal cords. Another therapeutic exoskeleton device, the Lokomat, developed by the Swiss company, Hocoma, functions as robotic pants which are worn by patients as they use a treadmill. They are designed to aid patients who must relearn how to walk, such as when recovering from a stroke. Dutch scientists have also developed a similar product called “Lopes.”
The director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Professor Chris Melhuish, sees exoskeletons as having potential not only in medical applications such as rehabilitation, but also to “augment human function” in manufacturing or in the armed forces. The U.S. corporation, Raytheon, has built a device called the XOS2 to be used in combat, while Lockheed Martin provides an exoskeleton called the Hulc, which boasts hydraulics that allow soldiers to carry just short of 200 lbs.
As technology continues to advance, the applications of robotic exoskeletons such as The Body Extender will expand into other fields and assist humans in new ways. For now, however, Percro’s new wearable robot stands as the most sophisticated of its kind.
By Jennifer Pfalz