As seen in The Edge of Tomorrow, robotic suits can give humans powers which go beyond our natural capabilities. Whether used for battle purposes or to enhance factory workers’ abilities to perform tasks currently being taken over by robots, exosuits can help us adapt to new challenges represented by the changing environment in which some of us perform our daily activities.
In an era of unprecedented technological development, the ever-present pressure to be more competitive has reached the stage in which humans can no longer compete with machines, at least with regards to working in fully automated mode, or performing actions in some specific environments, potentially hazardous to human beings. These days, robotic machines have become so sophisticated that they seriously challenge humans, even in those fields in which human touch has been an exclusive prerequisite. It is no longer the thing of a distant future; Sci-Fi visions where robots outperform humans have become a part of our everyday life. Besides industrial robots, of which we are all fully aware, the following examples vividly depict where this technology is heading.
• In the August 2014, the team of researchers and engineers from Harvard, Wyss Insitute, and MIT presented the concept of self-assembling robots which can perform tasks without human intervention. Such robots would be fully automated machines which could assemble themselves on the spot, triggered by a certain signal or the environmental change, and perform its pre-programmed functions autonomously.
• Advanced humanoid robots, like the one developed by NASA and General Motors, popularly called R2, shall be capable of working alongside humans in the most demanding work conditions, including space missions. Such robots are being designed to use the same tools as humans and perform tasks which demand a high level of dexterity. One such robot has already been completely assembled and functional on-board of the International Space Station (ISS). It just needs some additional upgrades to its upper body before it can take on missions outside the space station.
Nevertheless, humans can get their fighting chance if they embrace the idea of becoming to a certain degree semi-robotic themselves. It is hard to predict the potential scope of their application, but specialized exoskeletons can supplement any given human physical function. Some of those systems, like the ‘smart suit’, can be made so lightweight and flexible that they don’t interfere with other wearers functions. In that case, their role would be largely limited, but other types of exosuits can have a much wider range of applications.
Another ace in our sleeve in the battle with robots is our sophisticated situational awareness, and other brain functions, which current AI cannot compete with.
An example of how we can get the best of both worlds, human and robot, could be found at Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering facility in South Korea, where workers tested Daewoo’s prototype of robotic exosuit.The initial test in which workers used this suit to carry 30 kg on top of their own weight, proved very successful. The final model should allow them to carry 100 kg with no effort at all. Daewoo is not the only company developing commercial exoskeletons. Among others, Lockheed Martins pride themselves with HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), which has a lifting power of 100 kg, now mainly used by US military.Panasonic is also developing their own versions of exoskeletons, inspired by the “Power Loader” suit from Alien – Power Loader and Power Loader Light. They are expected to appear on the market this year.
As with many other technological advancements, the most elaborate programs are to be found in the military sector. Thanks to the huge funds allocated for defense systems, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was able to employ 16 government agencies, 56 corporations, 13 universities, and 10 laboratories in the development of their exoskeleton which should resemble the Iron Man suit more than any of the systems mentioned above. Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) program has produced an XOS-2 suit which allows a wearer to carry 180 kg as if it were 10. On top of that, this suit is supposed to be equipped with numerous sensors which can track bodily parameters of the wearer, such as the core body temperature, heart rate, hydration levels, etc. The suit itself will dispose of means to regulate its temperature and provide real-time information about the battlefield to the user.
So, if we can use this technology to make a super-soldier, we should be capable of making a super-worker as well, and help save many jobs in the future.