Exo Homo

Courtesy of UC Berkeley

Researchers at the University of Berkeley announce the development of a self-powered exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle, meant to assist individuals in carrying heavy loads over long distances.

The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX), funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is designed to be ergonomic, highly maneuverable and technically robust so the wearer can walk, squat, bend and swing from side to side without noticeable reductions in agility.

Excerpts from the press release (emphasis added):

The researchers point out that the human pilot does not need a joystick, button or special keyboard to "drive" the device. Rather, the machine is designed so that the pilot becomes an integral part of the exoskeleton, thus requiring no special training to use it. In the UC Berkeley experiments, the human pilot moved about a room wearing the 100-pound exoskeleton and a 70-pound backpack while feeling as if he were lugging a mere 5 pounds.

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More than 40 sensors and hydraulic actuators form a local area network (LAN) for the exoskeleton and function much like a human nervous system. The sensors, including some that are embedded within the shoe pads, are constantly providing the central computer brain information so that it can adjust the load based upon what the human is doing. When it is turned on, the exoskeleton is constantly calculating what it needs to do to distribute the weight so little to no load is imposed on the wearer.

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The current prototype allows a person to travel over flat terrain and slopes, but work on the exoskeleton is ongoing, with the focus turning to miniaturization of its components. The UC Berkeley engineers are also developing a quieter, more powerful engine, and a faster, more intelligent controller, that will enable the exoskeleton to carry loads up to 120 pounds within the next six months. In addition, the researchers are studying what it takes to enable pilots to run and jump with the exoskeleton legs.

The engineers point out that while the exoskeleton does the heavy lifting, the human contributes to the balance. "The pilot is not ?driving? the exoskeleton," said Kazerooni. "Instead, the control algorithms in the computer are constantly calculating how to move the exoskeleton so that it moves in concert with the human."

The significance? Once the technological hurdles are overcome, such an exoskeleton will form the basis for the next product life cycle in the evolution of cyborgian sport, in much the same way that we have seen with the trampoline-enhanced hoops of SlamBall.

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