Exosuits Could Save Factory Workers from Losing Their Jobs to Robots

Exosuits may soon be used for maintenance on Navy ships, but they'll soon be commonplace in factories.

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Jan 14 2015, 6:53pm

Lockheed Martin's FORTIS exosuit. Image: ​Lockheed Martin

Robots are automating humans out of factories, out of menial jobs, and off of the battlefield. Everywhere you look, humans are losing jobs to robots. But maybe, by becoming semi-robotic ourselves, humans will stave off the robotic revolution for some time yet.

I'm talking, of course, about exosuits. Not quite Iron Man (but maybe, one day) but simply a mechanical suit that confers its wearer a very specific superpower. In many cases, that superpower will be super strength, but, more likely, it's something like super welding or super drilling or something much more mundane.

The very near term future of the part-time cybersoldier is that of super maintenance worker, not super warfighting machine.

Exosuits could and should, in fact, play an important role aboard Naval ships moving forward, according to Andrew Herr, a military consultant, and Scott Cheney-Peters, a surface warfare officer in the US Navy Reserve, who just released an analysis of the technology colorfully called "Between Iron Man and Aqua Man," published by the Center for a New American Security.

Imagine this: A missile blows a hole in an American battleship. A squad of Navy sailors quickly hop into their powered exosuits, plunge into the water, and use their built-in sealant tools to plug the hole. Good as new.

Image: Ekso Bionics

Exosuits are a nice, maybe even ideal blend of man and machine for the Navy, and for the private sector, too.

"Exosuit-enabled humans have substantial advantages over remotely controlled robots, which are slow and do not give operators as much situational awareness," the two wrote in the analysis. "Autonomy is not yet near the level of development required to handle the missions in which exosuits would excel."

Near-term applications could include disaster and humanitarian response (tossing aside debris to find survivors), boat maintenance and repair, factory work, loading shipping containers and moving around very heavy objects, and that sort of thing.

The military agrees. Gill Pratt, program manager of a DARPA effort to create exosuits for soldiers, told MIT Technology Review that robots simply can't cut it in many cases.

"Just because the body looks similar to a human being or an animal does not mean the brain of the robot is anywhere near as good," he said.

This isn't some far-off future. The Navy is already experimenting with unpowered metal exosuits that can make it easier to pick up and move things; and powered exosuits, which are in their infancy but do indeed exist, can make you run faster or return full mobility to people who have been injured or are aging. Herr told me that, within five years, the Navy could and should have working exosuits aboard battleships and aircraft carriers.

"If we put our research and development into making exosuits that have targeted uses, that can do a lot of things very well but not every single thing well, then I think this will happen within five years," he said. "There's definitely a role and a reason to research Iron Man-style suits that can do everything, but if you just say, 'We want an exosuit that can be powered for two hours and has swappable batteries,' you could have highly effective suits soon."

And if the military is able to make exosuits that are better than robots at certain tasks, it's only a matter of time until your average factory worker is wearing one. In some cases, the tech is already here. Honda's exoskeleton legs are designed to help people walk; at Daewoo's shipyard in South Korea, workers wear suits that allow them to lift 65-pounds with barely any effort at all.

"It certainly will bleed over to the private sector," Herr said. "You can also imagine that, when prices come down, you can allow many workers to continue working when they're older. Factories are going to want people on the ground that understand things better than robots, who have better situational awareness. People just understand things better, sometimes. With exosuits, they can even be more efficient."

So, don't count the human race out yet. We can be better than robots, we just need to become a little bit more like them.