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More than 50 years ago, General Electric engineer and robotics pioneer Ralph Mosher presented a ground-breaking technical paper at the 1967 Automotive Engineering Congress in Detroit, USA, outlining his vision for the use and development of exoskeletons.

“Man and machine can be combined into an intimate, symbiotic unit that will perform essentially as one wedded system,” he wrote. “The adaptive, reflex control of man can be transmitted directly to a mechanism so that the mechanism responds as though it were a natural extension of the man. ...Moreover, environments that are normally hostile to a human do not affect the machine.”

Back then, this was a lofty vision, but one that Mosher worked hard at realising. “Mosher was one of the earliest pioneers of exoskeletons, working alongside the US Armed Forces to bring machinery closer to the body,” explains Chris Hunter, vice president of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Innovation and Science in New York. “Together they co-developed ‘Hardiman’ – an exoskeleton that comprised two suits, a master suit which controlled a slave suit also worn by the user.”

The slave suit was powered by hydraulics and electricity and amplified the wearer’s strength by a factor of 25, so that lifting 110kg would feel like lifting 4.5kg. Unfortunately, however, the suit itself weighed 680kg and the response time was incredibly slow, as was its walking speed. What’s more, bugs reportedly caused “violent and uncontrollable motion by the machine” when moving both legs simultaneously. It came as no surprise, then, when these challenges ended the Hardiman project in 1971.

A lot has changed since these early advances. “There’s been an explosion of innovation in the areas of biomechanics, prosthetics, robotics and control systems, man-machine interfaces, end effectors, mechatronic subsystems and power management,” explains Kristi Martindale, chief product officer at US technology firm Sarcos Robotics. “These developments have led over time to the commercial viability of exoskeleton technologies.”

“Exoskeletons have also become lighter, more efficient, and able to more closely mimic movement like the human gait,” adds Marc Carrel-Billiard, senior managing director and technology innovation lead at multinational professional services company Accenture. “This makes them safer and more practical than ever before.”

As a result, there has been a proliferation of new exoskeleton companies over the years. “We’ve been around since the very start, but today there are over 80 exoskeleton companies globally all trying to solve complex human factors with exoskeletons,” explains Michael Pratt, vice president of California-based firm Ekso Bionics.

This global effort is expected to lead to real market growth. ABI Research predicts the robotic exoskeleton market will reach US$1.8bn in 2025, up from $68m in 2014. It will then increase to a massive $11.5bn by 2030, with full-body powered industrial exoskeletons comprising almost 50 per cent of that amount. “These are significant numbers, and really highlight the size of the market opportunity for exoskeletons,” Martindale says.

Along with this growth will come expanded use cases, especially in industries like construction and manufacturing, where employees carry and transfer heavy loads and move in a repetitive manner.

“Back injuries are currently the second most common cause of missing work in the US and cause an estimated economic impact of $100bn annually,” says Carrel-Billiard. “Exoskeletons provide the worker with more strength, agility and endurance and can allow them to lift heavy objects, reducing the overall load on personnel. Meanwhile, passive exoskeletons – those that don’t require external power – are a cost-effective option to reduce physical strain and can be made available to thousands of employees.”

“Working on construction sites is a physically demanding job,” adds Saskia Duch, Hilti’s regional product manager for Northern Europe. “There are numerous tasks that workers will perform throughout the day that can have a negative impact on their comfort and health and safety. The exoskeleton system provides the right level of support to perform these applications more comfortably, resulting in less fatigue and preventing other duties from being hindered. The exoskeleton is also designed to withstand environments where dust is present, which is an important factor in keeping job sites productive and safe.”

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It’s in exactly these scenarios that several firms are making real progress. The Chairless Chair from Noonee, for example, supports users as they crouch or stand in the same position for long periods.

“The Chairless Chair 2.0 is now the third product generation and has been continuously developed in cooperation with renowned automobile manufacturers,” explains Katrin Hoffmann, a spokesperson for Noonee. “The exoskeleton redirects 64 per cent of the bodyweight carried by feet and alleviates strains on the back. This is what makes the Chairless Chair so special. Exoskeletons for the upper body support the strength aspect, but the additional weight of the exoskeleton must be carried by the body. The Chairless Chair, on the other hand, transfers most of the weight via the legs of the exoskeleton to the ground.”

Hilti’s solution, meanwhile, focuses on overhead applications. “The Exoskeleton is a unique addition to the Hilti product range and is offering customers next-level support in terms of reducing fatigue and pain caused by working on overhead applications,” explains Duch. “It has been designed with the right balance of support power, freedom of movement and comfort so that customers are able to wear it throughout the day.”

Duch says that the Hilti system improves productivity because it provides workers with the ability to perform tough tasks with less pain and fatigue. “The system generates the forces to support the operators’ arm while working, reducing the load on shoulder joints and lowering the risk of shoulder joint injury that can often occur when working on overhead applications regularly,” she says. “Add into this our fleet management, direct sales force and digital services and you have a unique offering.”

California-based Levitate Technologies has also created an upper-body exoskeleton – one that Joseph Zawaideh, the firm’s vice president of marketing and business development, says is low-profile enough, light enough, functional enough and breathable enough to be practical and worn every day by the end user. “This practicality makes it easy to use, which results in greater end-user adoption,” he explains. “It is the only upper-body exoskeleton that has been classified and mandated as personal protective equipment (PPE) by world-class manufacturers.”

Ekso Bionics’ EVO Industrial Exoskeleton allows the user to be able to lift and hold power tools as if they don’t weigh anything at all. “Our second-generation industrial exoskeleton, EVO, has new design principles to augment the capabilities of industrial athletes and support them with the physical nature of their day-to-day jobs,” says Pratt. “EVO was developed based on extensive experience in real-world applications. When it comes to upper-body exoskeletons, EVO is uniquely lightweight, flexible, and durable. EVO’s novel design tracks the natural movement of the body and allows for an unrestricted range of motion to best support the wearer while boosting their endurance.”

While these solutions are all incredibly impressive, there’s currently only one full-body, battery-powered exoskeleton on the market today that successfully translates Rosher’s early vision into reality – and that’s Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO.

Twenty years in the making, the Guardian XO uses more than 125 robot-integrated sensors to detect environmental conditions and the operator’s movement. The weight of the suit, as well as its payload, is transferred through the suit’s structure to the ground and results in offloading 100 per cent of the weight the worker is bearing, as well as the weight of the suit itself. This means the operator can perform hours of physically demanding work in the suit, lifting and manipulating heavy items repetitively without causing any strain or injury to his or her body.

“The Guardian XO is designed to tackle challenging work in unstructured environments,” explains Martindale. “To that end, it can lift up to 200lb [90kg]. It is in the final stages of development.”

The depth and breadth of these solutions isn’t going unnoticed – in fact, some of the world’s biggest industrial firms are already realising the benefits of these exoskeleton solutions. BMW Group automotive production plants in Germany, for example, are reported to be using solutions from both Ekso Bionics and Noonee. Levitate’s solution has eliminated injuries and workers’ compensation costs for certain overhead jobs at Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America.

German carmaker Audi is using the Chairless Chair on its production floor. Meanwhile, Ford has added Ekso Bionics’ first-generation wearable exoskeleton, the EksoVest, to 15 assembly plants across seven countries following a successful pilot programme. And one of Britain’s largest contractors, Willmott Dixon, has trialled EksoVest as a solution on several building sites across the country.

“To the credit of industrial employers, many are now seeking ergonomic solutions within the constraints of the requirements of repetitive physical jobs,” says Pratt. “The primary industries are manufacturing, automotive, food processing and construction. Our customers are using our exoskeleton solution to drive predictable performance and productivity.

“In addition to this, our customers also benefit from the recruitment and retainment of talent, the reduced cost of absenteeism, improved employee engagement, and a higher level of morale in a workforce that feels protected and supported to do their everyday job.”

Meanwhile, in a bid to speed up the commercialisation of its product, Sarcos Robotics has formed the Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group, which includes companies across industrial manufacturing, automotive, aviation, aerospace, construction, oil and gas and utilities, including Bechtel, Caterpillar, Delta, GE and Schlumberger, among others. These companies have been working with Sarcos since March 2018 to identify key performance and safety requirements.

Delta Airlines is the first company whose frontline employees have worked directly with Sarcos to determine potential operational uses for the Guardian XO. “In January 2020, we announced a partnership with Delta and showed the first public demonstration of the XO at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show,” says Martindale. “Delta announced trials of the XO with their frontline workers for baggage handling tasks.”

With these advancements in mind, it’s easy to get excited about the current application of exoskeletons – and the experts agree that there’s an even more exciting future ahead.

“In the future, exoskeletons could also act as connected devices that provide a level of traceability – providing insight beyond the completion of a task and into details on how a task was completed,” Carrel-Billiard says. “What’s more, with consumerisation, we can expect more exoskeletons to support everyday activities across even more sectors. Beyond the industrial space, we are already seeing new use cases for training, rehabilitation, and even recreation, and expect to see even more applications in the future as the technology advances.”

Zawaideh expects exoskeletons to become standard PPE just like safety glasses, safety shoes and fall protection harnesses. “We expect exoskeletons to be mandated by many industries and we also expect them to eventually be available to consumers in big box stores like Home Depot,” he says.

Hoffman agrees: “The topic of ergonomics in the workplace is becoming increasingly important and is already well implemented in many companies,” she says. “That’s why, in the future, exoskeletons will be an integral part of the working world. Indeed, once you have experienced the advantages of exoskeletons, there’s no turning back.”

Timeline

A brief history of exoskeletons

1830: British inventor Robert Seymour proposed a concept to help people walk by a wearable device that was propelled by steam.1889: American inventor Ira C. C. Rinehart conceptually designed a walking machine which enabled an individual to step 7ft and 4in (2.2m) at an ordinary stride.1860: Russian engineer Nicholas Yagn developed an exoskeleton-like device that used energy stored in compressed gas bags to assist in movement. This passive solution also required human power.1890: Patents were granted to Yagn for a solution using long leaf springs operating in parallel to the legs. This exoskeleton was intended to augment the running abilities of the Russian Army.1917: US inventor Leslie C. Kelley developed what he called a pedometer, which operated on steam power with artificial ligaments acting in parallel to the wearer’s movements. This system was able to supplement human power with external power.1958: GE engineer Ralph Mosher developed the Handyman for the joint AEC-USAF Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Programme. Mosher enabled the Handyman’s manipulators to be sensitive enough to stack eggs, but also strong enough to left heavy objects. At Handyman’s debut press conference, Mosher lifted and moved a hammer, and spun a hula hoop to illustrate the versatility of his creation.1965: The Hardiman exoskeleton was developed by General Electric working with the US Army and Navy. It comprised of two suits – a master which controlled a slave suit also worn by the user.1965: Cornell University engineer Neil Mizen developed a 15.8kg wearable frame exoskeleton, dubbed the ‘man amplifier’, that Popular Science magazine said would allow a user to lift 1,000lb (450kg) with each hand.1980s: Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory created a design for the ‘Pitman suit’, a full-body powered exoskeleton for use by US Army infantrymen.2000: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) came up with the funding for a US$75m programme called Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation.2010: Time Magazine named Sarcos Robotics’ Iron Man-like wearable exoskeleton one of ‘The 50 Best Inventions of 2010’.

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