This blog is now rarely updated, but remains as an archive of bits and pieces I've collected from around the internet. To see what's caught my eye more recently, find me on twitter.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

#126; In search of a super suit

"First you use machines, then you wear machines, and then…?" - John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)
"Where can I get my hands on some sort of bionic strength-enhancing robot suit?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another. For me, at the tender age of 8, I lost an arm wrestle to a girl in the playground. As the back of my trembling hand was forced down to the ground and tears of shame started to blur my vision, my panic-stricken mind turned to the obvious solution to my problem of pre-pubescent scrawniness – bionic enhancement.

It's been 13 tough years since that day, and a super-suit of some sort remains near the top of my list of fantasy acquisitions, alongside a time machine and iHouse. Films like Iron Man have done nothing to dampen my expectations of what a wearable robot suit might do, and I think it's time to sit down and think a bit more seriously about this Super Suit. It seems it's not quite as far off as I feared.

The majority of developing work is driven by military and medical endeavours, and useable, wearable machines designed to enhance human physical capabilities are finally being made: In 2008, Yves “Jetman” Rossy flew across the English Channel wearing a "homemade" jetpack; "exoskeleton" suits claim to increase people's strength by up to 17 times; and some prosthetic legs have now become so advanced that they are considered to give amputees better mobility than human legs themselves could achieve. So where to begin?

To the casual user like myself, flight is undeniably one of the most appealing qualities of a super suit, and there are a few options. The most basic and visceral is the Wingsuit - a jumpsuit with extra material between the legs and under the arms that allows the wearer to glide seamlessly through the air (Video 1 below). One of these will set you back a relatively reasonable £1000, but, if we're being picky, only really offers slightly more control over your long-distance falling – not ideal. Jetman's suit is a step up, consisting of a fixed Buzz Lightyear-style wing and powerful jet pack which fires him through the air, but again requires a parachute landing, a very high take-off point, and lots of fuel (V2). Finally, the "Martin Jetpack" is yet another option, which uses two fans to provide lift and can fly for about half an hour up to a height of 8000 feet. Not too shabby, and a snip at $100,000 a pop (V3).

So, that's flight sorted (ish). Next, it would be nice to be super strong. This seems to be where military funded projects are leading the way. The XOS 2, an exoskeleton suit being developed by Raytheon in the USA, claims to increase a wearer's carrying strength by 17 times, so a soldier carrying a 170kg pack would only have to exert the effort normally required to carry 17kg (V4). And this isn't the only strength enhancer - competition is driving the development of suits across the world, particularly in Japan. For example, the "Agricultural Exoskeleton" is being developed in Tokyo to help ageing farmers work their land, while the "Powerloader" has been designed with factory workers in mind, helping labourers lift heavier objects higher.

Perhaps the brightest prospect is the HAL robot suit, produced by Cyberdine and currently in use in Japan and available for rent for roughly $2000 a month. This is designed as a rehabilitation and mobility aid but has clear applications in a wide range of fields (let your imagine run wild), and with 500 being churned out each year, this is a relatively accessible mass-market product, despite the concerning appellation. So are these suits what I've been waiting for? Will they transform the wearer into a lightning-fast, superstrong being capable of amazing feats? Well, sort of. A quick trip to YouTube (or the bottom of this post) will reveal that we're not quite there yet, while many problems (such as a lightweight, reliable power source) are yet to be fully overcome. The suits are cumbersome, experimental, outrageously expensive, and not really designed for the recreational joy-rider.

Artificial exoskeletons are starting to show great potential for enhancing the quality of life of people with restricted mobility, and this rightly remains the focus of most of the development, but how long will it be before every kid is asking for a flying, weaponized robot suit for Christmas? A little while yet, as these suits will remain out of reach of all but the lottery winners among us for now. In a sense, these advancements are merely the natural development of currently mainstream technologies such as wheelchairs, planes and SCUBA suits. Are they even such a far stretch from a knight’s armour? Technology is outpacing evolution, and impatient humans will use anything we can get our hands on to push the limits of our capacities. We won’t be flying to work and vanquishing our foes with in-built grenade launchers any time soon, but the human urge to reach for the skies means that it might not be too long before you see a man fly like a bird, run like a cheetah, and arm-wrestle like a god.

Don’t believe me? These videos show some of the suits mentioned:
Video 1 - Wingsuits:

Video 2 - Jetman

Video 3 - Martin Jetpack

Video 4 - Raytheon XOS2 Exoskeleton

Video 5 - Cyberdine HAL robot suit

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