Nearing Iron Man: Exosuits & Exoskeletons
Human bodies are defined by compromise. We have weathered the millions of years of evolution, balancing our carnivore and herbivore instincts, becoming hunter-gatherers, settled peoples, city-dwellers. For all that time, we’ve depended on one piece of tried and tested technology that determines how we interact with all others.
No, not war. Not fire either. Keep up. The human body, the lens through which we experience the world and the tool through which we manipulate it, is the one thing that everyone in this world is guaranteed at birth, by definition. Of course, also by definition, bodyhackers want to get more functionality out of it. We’ve got vitamins, wearable tech, workout regimens and the quantified self, but there’s one area of perpetual inquiry:
What does it take to make me stronger than anyone ever was before?
Fortunately, people are working on this! Two of the most interesting fields right now are sports and manual labor – and for example, we have the Ultimate Weapons Masters’ Lorica, and the Ekso Works Industrial Exoskeleton, both of which take the functionality of the human body to new heights through clever engineering and a willingness to wear a ton of metal and plastic.
The Lorica is, to put it mildly, rad. Current footage shows it as black, bionic battle armor, with anonymous figures going at it with swords and quarterstaffs like maniacs. The suit is an integrated armor/sensor suite, named for the Latin “Lorica Segmentata,” the pinnacle of first-century Roman armor.
“Wouldn’t it be brilliant,” said CEO David Psyden of UWM, describing the thought process that lead to the birth of the Lorica, “if a way could be devised… for different weapon styles around the world to fight and test their skills against one another.” The suit’s armor, in short, keeps the horrible consequences of weapon combat – especially weapon combat from different schools of thought – from rendering the combatants incapacitated, while the sensors record every slash and stab, providing a sensible baseline for comparison of deadliness.
While initial models “weighed around 25kg, and were ‘extremely warm’ inside,” the suit is getting lighter and more efficient with each generation. With current thinking favoring a sport and training model, the Lorica – and the new, attendant combat sport of nigh-unrestricted weapon to weapon combat- is expected to do its first set of invitationals in the next few years.
The Ekso Exoskeleton is a wholly different animal. Where the Lorica has a certain testosterone-fueled cyberpunk aesthetic, the Ekso looks like what would happen if a Fisher-Price baby walker grew up, got its GED and went to trade school. Consisting of a system of counterweights balanced around a central wearable armature that fits around the hips supported by a metal tube frame down the legs to the ground, with a spring arm that works like a Steadicam and other such stabilizer mounts. Without a power source, the counterweights and use of the body’s own natural inertia gives great flexibility to the unpowered limb and lets the user wield tools as though they weighed a fraction of their actual weight.
But that’s only part of the advantage. Under the brand name Fortis, no less a luminary than Lockheed-Martin has taken to using these as maintenance equipment on US Navy vessels, designed to prevent injury and allow longer working periods. Another Ekso brand is meeting with success as a treatment for injured and mobility-impaired people, allowing them to relearn to walk and functioning as a tool of physical therapy.
The human body is old technology, not to say that that makes it bad- so are mitochondria, after all, and no one’s really pushing to disrupt that market. But the tools we have now can make that body stronger, faster, able to push the envelope in ways that our history never accounted for and our biology can’t hope to keep up with.
If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, by all means, shun the exoskeleton. But these things speak to a human need as deep as the need of food or companionship – the need to be better, one way or another. The core of our experience is the shared need to be more than we are. Written in plastic and steel, these things – toys and treatment though they may be – show that drive at its finest.
Also, I really want to see “MMA, but with swords.”
Photos courtesy of UWM and Lorica