Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Robot exoskeleton suits that could make us superhuman

Lockheed Martin's HULC exoskeleton is designed to allow soldiers to carry superhuman loads. Lockheed Martin's HULC exoskeleton is designed to allow soldiers to carry superhuman loads.
HIDE CAPTION
Lockheed Martin HULC
Cyberdyne HAL-5
Muscle Suit by Kobalab
Argo ReWalk
Ekso Bionics Ekso
Nasa X-1
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Take a look at some of the most amazing exoskeleton technology
  • Bionics expert says exoskeletons will become more common in the next five years
  • Powered suits are in development for military, personal and medical use
  • Exoskeletons have allowed paralyzed people to walk and given soldiers super strength

(CNN) -- If you've been dreaming of strapping on your own "Iron Man" armor, you might have to wait a while longer. But revolutionary "bionic exoskeletons," like the metal suit worn by comic book hero Tony Stark, might be closer than you think -- just don't expect to fly away in one.

Exoskeleton developers working in rehabilitation are leading the way, creating wearable robotic suits that allow people with lower-body paralysis to walk upright again.

Other developers are hoping to enhance users' existing strengths, with the DARPA Warrior Web project aiming to produce an undetectable under-suit exoskeleton for the U.S. Military.

Bionics expert Thomas Sugar says that medical and military exoskeletons are going to become a much more common sight -- and that exoskeletons for the average person are not far behind.

In the next five years we're going to see more and more exoskeletons out there in practice.
Dr Tom Sugar, Arizona State University

"In the next five years we're going to see more and more exoskeletons out there in practice," says Sugar, associate professor at the Department of Engineering, Arizona State University.

In addition to personal systems being pioneered in Japan that aim to "give aging people a spring back in their step," Sugar says devices for the active individual or "weekend hiker" are on the horizon: "If you live near where I do and want to go out and hike the Grand Canyon, exoskeleton devices 10-15 years from now could assist you to do that."

Interactive: Explore the bionic body

But there are hurdles that need to be overcome. Finding batteries powerful enough to fuel an exoskeleton's motorized joints remains a key stumbling block, explains Sugar. But he says that the real acid test for exoskeletons of the future is whether the device can interpret the user's intent effectively into action.

"If you look at some of the devices out there, they're actually quite hard to walk in," says Sugar. "You've got to make sure they really enhance people's abilities."

Here are some of the most advanced exoskeletons aiming to supercharge our lives in the near future.

Lockheed Martin HULC

Defense technology developer Lockheed Martin leads the efforts to develop a exoskeleton fit for the battlefield with its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC).

Exoskeleton helps paralyzed walk
Thoughts move bionic arm
The world's most advanced bionic leg
Amputee rock climber heals with bionics

The system aims to divert up to 200 lbs in weight through powered titanium legs while allowing the user to move freely.

Lockheed claims that a fully laden soldier will retain the ability to march at 3mph and even break into 10mph sprint "bursts" while wearing the battery-powered HULC.

The system is designed to reduce the stress on the leg and back muscles -- a common cause of injury among soldiers -- and comes with a Lift Assist Device attachment that allows a soldier to safely lift heavy loads with the strength of two or more men.

Read this: Are bionic superhumans on the horizon?

Cyberdyne HAL-5

HAL made news at the time of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011, when Japanese firm Cyberdyne ventured its robot suits as the disaster-fighting protection of the future.

While a radiation-resistant model is yet to see action, HAL-5 Type-B has become the first personal exoskeleton robot to receive a global safety certificate.

Cyberdyne says that so far, 330 of the full-body exoskeletons have been leased to hospitals across Japan, where they assist patients with muscle weakness or disabilities due to stroke and spinal cord injuries.

The company boasts that it is the world's first "cyborg-type robot" as the system interprets faint electrical signals in the skin around damaged muscles and moves the motorized joints in response.

Muscle Suit by Kobalab

Scientists from Tokyo University are gambling that they can beat the competition to launch a superstrong exoskeleton by shunning complex computer systems.

Kobayashi Labs' Muscle Suit replaces electronic actuator motors with a system of inflatable pneumatic "artificial muscles" to help nurses or care workers carry elderly or ill patients.

Volunteers have been invited to try on the suit, which currently allows users to support 50kg with ease, carrying it with fixed arms, like a walking forklift truck.

Argo ReWalk

Argo's ReWalk has already propelled former chiropractor Claire Lomas into the record books. Five years after a horseriding accident left Lomas paralyzed from the chest down, she became the first person to complete a marathon in a bionic exoskeleton at the London Marathon in May 2012, while using the ReWalk.

Already on the market for $65,000, the ReWalk enables people with spinal cord injuries to walk again and can now claim 220 trained users around the world.

Competitor Ekso Bionics has seen similar success -- claiming to have powered one million steps with its 50lb wearable robot -- and will launch a personal version in 2014.

Read: Exoskeleton allows paraplegics to walk

Nasa X-1

What if an exoskeleton inhibited a person's movement as well and helped it? It doesn't seem like such a useful idea on Earth -- but up in the resistance-free environment of space, Nasa astronauts could benefit from a little hindrance.

The 25kg X-1 has been designed to allow astronauts to exercise without the Earth's gravitational pull and could be critical for future missions into deep space, NASA says.

The device could improve the health of crew aboard the International Space Station -- and potentially during future long-duration missions to far away asteroids or Mars.

The legs have the added benefit of assisting movement, with four motorized joints, if used here on Earth -- but there are currently no details on when the legs might see a wider release.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the stars in search of answers. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone?
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
CNN's Philippe Cousteau visits Laguna Grande in Puerto Rico to explore the wonder of bioluminescence.
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
NASA's new flying saucer-shaped spacecraft has made its maiden flight.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide took this breathtaking selfie during Expedition 32 on September 5, 2012.
He may be best known for his part in the historic Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, but did you know Buzz Aldrin snapped the "first space selfie?"
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
If you were the second person to set foot on the moon, what would you be worried about? For Buzz Aldrin -- it was a locked door. Find out why.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0906 GMT (1706 HKT)
Man has been making images of the moon for millennia. Explore our gallery of some of the most eye-catching creations.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Photographer Michael Muller is a man without fear. He swims among sharks without the protection of a cage which might seem crazy but it's actually for a good reason.
shakespeare moon illustration
The moon has always had a powerful grip on our imagination. Here's how the likes of Shakespeare and Twain have taken inspiration from this midnight muse.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin with the first lunar rover.
Google shoots for stars with competition asking innovators to send a robot back to the moon by December 31, 2015. Will any one be able to do it?
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
CNN's Becky Anderson looks at how practicing underwater is the perfect way to prepare for spacewalks.
August 2, 2014 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
A NASA image of one of the Voyager space probes. Voyager 1 and its identical sister craft Voyager 2 were launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System and eventually interstellar space.
Voyager 1 continues to reveal the mysteries of the solar system to a captivated Earthbound audience 37 years after launch.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
ADVERTISEMENT