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jsavimbi 10-26-2006 04:15 PM

Robot Exoskeleton for soldiers
Exoskeleton update

Five years ago, New Scientist covered plans by the Pentagons research arm, DARPA, to build a robotic exoskeleton that would let GIs run faster, leap further and carry more. It was an interesting and ambitious idea - the plan was to have a miniature internal combustion engine moving each powered joint. But we heard no more about it and I just assumed the notion had been quietly dropped.

Far from it. I recently spoke to John Main, chief of DARPAs exoskeleton program. He says the project is very much alive and that exoskeletons will be delivered for Army testing in 2008. After 14 companies and universities initially (circa 2001) came up with different designs, they have selected the firm that will build the beast: Sarcos of Salt Lake City in Utah, US.

Sarcos has come up with a system that uses just one engine instead of lots of them. The engine, and a tank containing a 24-hour supply of fuel, will be slung beneath your rear end, says Main. The engine (a turbine, two-stroke or four stroke - they havent decided yet) will then drive hydraulic fluid via high pressure lines to servo valves on each joint, amplifying the force used to move each limb when the wearers motion is sensed.

Main tried it out himself recently. It makes you feel really, really strong. You get the sensation that you have a lot of strength. I sort of felt like The Hulk and Im a skinny guy. I wore a 100-pound weight on my back and it felt I was carrying nothing like that amount, he says. And he was only wearing the lower body - the legs and back support section.

Once the legs are mated to the powered arms, the full "powerloader" exoskeleton will be even stronger. The upper body portion has arms that can hold a 40-pound weight at arms length for three minutes, Main says.

Of course, running an internal combustion engine with the power of a scooter will be smelly and loud, say Main, and the exo wont be allowed indoors by the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The OSHA wont let it run inside a building because basically its a vehicle, says Main.

Then again, if you have superhuman strength, rules about building entry will be little bother: presumably you can just tear a wall off.

I wondered if the exoskeleton was easy to use. Well, it was fun. Not everybody gets to do this. Its an exercise in learning, like learning to ride a bike for the first time. You have to get your centre of gravity right. Its completely alien.

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