By David Goldstein
Everyone has wished, at one point or another, that they had the strength to lift a car off of the ground, or break through a brick wall with the pound of a fist. You know, typical superhero stuff. But everyone who has tried it knows that most of the time reality, and the limits of the human body, spoil the fun.
Thankfully, scientists have been developing a way around those limits, in the form of wearable exoskeleton robots capable of increasing our strength, stamina and speed.
These aren't the massive, clunky brutes of old sci-fi movies, but nimble extensions of the human body with the gift of intelligence. They work by sensing and anticipating the movements of the person wearing the suit, using their own power to minimize the efforts of the user.
While most of us probably won't be living out our superhero (or evil villain) fantasies, these robots have some very practical applications, both military and civilian.
Here are the top five exoskeleton robots that stretch the limitations of our bodies and our imaginations.
1. Raytheon Sarcos Exoskeleton
Designed primarily with military purposes in mind, the XOS Exoskeleton, developed by Sarcos (purchased by Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems in Massachusetts), is the robot perhaps most like the popular comic book character Iron Man. While it doesn't shoot missiles or have boots with rocket thrusters in them, it does allow the wearer to lift or carry up to two hundred pounds repeatedly without tiring. It's unique because it's one of the few full-body exoskeleton robots available. Most robot exoskeletons are broken up into either legs or arms.
The idea is that a soldier wearing one of these robots could carry heavy gear over long distances without getting tired; rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield with ease; or singlehandedly wield a weapon that usually requires two people to operate.
The major challenge has been engineering a power source that will power the robot from four to 24 hours. Right now the Exoskeleton can't operate that long without being plugged into some external power source, but the engineers are working on making it completely self sustaining.
2. Human Assistive Limb Exoskeleton (HAL)
Want to look your best for a big night on the town? CYBERDYNE Inc. in Japan understands. For those of you obsessed with accessories, this robot is a little more wearable than the others. The Human Assistive Limb Exoskeleton, or HAL, is a "cyborg type" robot designed to help people with mobility problems, in rehabilitation, and for heavy lifting. Although, if you visit the company's Web site, at first glance it looks as if the robot is designed to help you become a kung-fu master.