Futurists often predict that more and more jobs will be replaced by robots, but an Arizona State University professor imagines a future where humans still dominate the workforce – by wearing robotic suits.
Tom Sugar says it’s a future that may not be far off.
“In five years, we see this industry ballooning. You will see exoskeletons helping people out in industrial applications,” he said. “You’ll see, in the military, these devices helping people carry heavy loads. You’ll certainly see these devices in rehabilitation.”
Sugar and his team are working on five different robotic exoskeleton designs, including a “Spiderman suit” that lets a user climb walls with suction and a hip exoskeleton that reinforces a soldier’s legs to help carry up to 40 pounds of armor.
“The original research was for DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. We were asked to build exoskeletons to make people run faster, to make people more efficient, and also to carry heavy loads,” he explained.
Sugar’s team developed a flightless “Jet Pack” designed to help soldiers run faster in short bursts. Video of the device in action has been viewed more than two million times.
Parents, kids, and interested members of the public got an up-close look at the exoskeletons Friday along with dozens of other interactive exhibits during the ASU Polytechnic Campus’ Night of the Open Door. The free event gives guests a peek into cutting-edge laboratories that are normally closed to the public.
All of the exoskeletons weigh between 10 and 15 pounds, so the challenge is getting the amount of robotic boost to exceed the metabolic cost of wearing the device, Sugar said.
“Some of our robots have shown 10 to 30 percent metabolic augmentation,” he said. “So it’s actually easier to walk or run with these devices than no device at all.”
That’s quite an accomplishment: only four universities – ASU, MIT, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – have been able to build an exoskeleton with any such robotic advantage, Sugar said.
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