Technological and societal trends have triggered a race to develop wearable exoskeletons that augment a user’s strength for a range of applications.
In 1931 the American author Charles Fort (now best known for collecting details of weird and unexplained phenomena) coined the term ‘steam-engine time’. It refers to technologies for which the concept and underlying science has existed for some time, but that remain undeveloped until some triggering event, and then numerous teams, not in contact with each other, begin working on the technology at roughly the same time. The late 18th century was just the time to develop steam engines, Fort said, although the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all understood the scientific basis of their operation and had tinkered with the principles; James Watt, Thomas Newcomen and Richard Trevithick all came up with their own versions.
By Fort’s example, then, we can probably say that it’s exoskeleton time.
The idea of exoskeletons has been around for decades. It’s a simple idea: use powered mechanics to increase the strength of a human operator. General Electric built the first one in 1965. It was a fearsome device called Hardiman, which used hydromechanical servos for power. Hardiman was supposed to enable a human operator to lift up to 1,500 pounds, but the prototype, capable of lifting 750 pounds, weighed twice that; and problems with the control system meant that it jerked so violently that it was never switched on with a person inside.
Hardiman was predated by perhaps the most enduring image of an exoskeleton, the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man, created in 1963 by writers Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and artists Jack Kirby and Don Heck, and more recently portrayed on-screen by Robert Downie Jr and a lot of CGI. Other notable manifestations include the Powerloader from the film Aliens, halfway between a forklift truck and a robot, and used to load armaments into an aircraft and to fight the marauding Alien Queen
But the realm of science fiction was where exoskeletons stayed for many years. No more, however. In the past five years or so, a plethora of research projects have been working on concepts for exoskeletons, and some working models have been developed.