We have printed buildings (even bridges) and three-dimensional virtual reality initiatives that allow you to sense the completed structure even before the first pilings are set. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that technologists have discovered how to enhance the human skeleton to allow ordinary people to have super-strength capacities (think Ironman.)
The problem with earlier attempts at building the bionic man relates to power: Even with advances in battery technology, its still far too hefty and costly to make a porta-pack sufficiently durable for regular day-to-day work, especially in challenging locations (like outdoors, in puddles, muck and with noisy equipment all around — heck, like a construction site.)
The industrial exoskeleton doesn’t care about that, though. It’s unpowered, relying instead on counterweights and a standard, sprung arm used on image-stabilizing steadicams. The trick is the carbon fiber harness and metal-tube frame running down a user’s legs. It translates the weight of whatever’s on the end of the arm down through the suit and into the ground.
There are some complications with the idea, of course, and these relate to cost. While in theory this device might allow older construction workers — and maybe some affected by injuries — to return to work — the unit cost may be far too great to be practical, at least for some time. (There also, the Wired.com magazine indicates, some questions about who owns the technology, with disputed claims between Esko Bionics and Lockheed Martin about the provinence of a similar body device, LM Fortis, that has been sold to the US Navy for specialized applications.)
So by and large the suit works as advertised. Now the question is one of marketing and uptake. The construction business—which is what Ekso is targeting—is perhaps a bit more conservative than the military. Also, Ekso wouldn’t discuss the price of the suit, saying instead that the company would prefer to “focus on value.”
Ekso’s eventual marketing plan is to sell suits with arms adapted to specific tools. Wearing the exoskeleton it’s easy to imagine one with arms built to specifically carry Milwaukee or DeWalt—maybe even with batteries for power tools instead of dead metal as the counterweight. It won’t be Ripley fighting an alien queen in a loader, but maybe it’s a start.
There are some intriguing possibilities here — time will tell if the price/suitability of this technology can find construction industry applications. I sense the earliest adaptations will be for specialized high-demand environments and possibly workers’ compensation “return to work” claims adjustments. What will the world look like if an entire construction crew is outfitted like this, though?