After a final inspection, the engineer Gianluca approaches the machine, place his feet on the foot and fastened with metal buckles. It also adheres to the bosom of the structure and placed his arms on the arms. With a finger presses a button and the machine comes to life, the lights flicker and his joints creak as you move cautiously on the ground.
The machine is called Body Extender is developed in the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics l (Percro), part of the Santa Ana Superior school in Pisa. It can lift 50 kilos in each hand, you can have 10 times the force applied to the user object and its makers claim it is the most complex exoskeleton created so far.
“This laptop is the most complex robot ever built in the world”, says Fabio Salsedo, who leads the project. “It’s a device that can track the complex movement of the human body and also amplify the strength of the user”.
The machine has 22 degrees of freedom; each powered by an electric motor, and is formed of modular components, which means that the robot may easily be rebuilt to accommodate the demand, said its designer.
“There are several possible applications. For example, if you need to mount a very complex product like a plane, this machine is very flexible. Can you lift a panel, rotate it and place it in the correct position”.
“Another application is to rescue victims in the event of an earthquake. It is required very flexible to respond rapidly without harming the victim”.
FROM NATURE TO THE LABORATORY
Exoskeletons, i.e. “exoskeletons” are common in nature. Grasshoppers, cockroaches, crabs and lobsters have exoskeletons instead of an internal endoskeleton like humans, providing body support and protection from predators.
Turtles have both an internal skeleton as an exoskeleton, the shell. The robotic exoskeletons or mechanical humans could offer the kind of protection, support and strength that nature provides. The stent body is just one of a series of machines that researchers and companies are developing or marketed worldwide.
A subsidiary of Panasonic recently unveiled its PowerLoader, which can also raise a total of 100 kilos and walk 8 kilometers per hour. The plan is to launch the machine to the market in 2015 to work in factories or any other application that the client wants to imagine. Another Japanese company Cyberdyne has developed a hybrid system auxiliary arm or Hal, a range of machines designed for rescue work or lifting trabajoy in place to avoid damaging the worker’s back.
The military applications of exoskeletons became apparent quickly. The U.S. has developed the Raytheon XOS 2 for soldiers in the field, while Lockheed Martin has the HULC, a hydraulic exoskeleton that allows soldiers to carry loads of about 90 kg. Then there are the medical uses. The Israeli company Argo Medical Technologies ReWalk markets its device to help people with lower limb disabilities to walk upright on crutches, while Ekso Bionics and Cyberdyne, which originally developed the HULC-offer similar devices.
The Swiss company Hocoma provides a therapeutic device called Lokomat, a robotic pant that are used on a belt designed to help patients with stroke and other conditions to improve their walking, while Dutch researchers developed a similar device.
Chris Melhuish, the director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, believes exoskeletons have a place in the future of robotics in those cases still need humans to direct or control a robotic device or risks or respond quickly to environmental changes.
“It’s a technology that is rapidly growing and maturing”, he told the BBC. “The kind of exoskeleton functionality depends on what you want to do and how far you want it to be independent”.
“They may have a reparative medical function, or extended human functions, such as military systems, rescue services or factories, to move large or heavy objects”.
According to Melhuish, three main issues are to develop control systems, materials and, above all, the power systems. It is important to have an independent source to not depend on cables.
“The evolution of the exoskeleton goes hand in hand with the evolution of batteries or other storage systems, high density, and the development of lightweight structural materials”.
Fabio Salsedo believes the simplest medical devices will become commonplace before the full body exoskeletons.
“Still there is a problem with the overall balance of the [Body Extender] machine, it is very difficult at this time to ensure that the machine is not going to fall on uneven ground”, he told the BBC.
Rich Walker, of the Shadow Robot Company based in London, told the BBC: “Exoskeletons have a very important role in keeping people more active and healthy longer age, whether at work or at home paper. Much of the Japanese effort is focused on making systems that can afford seniors help their spouses without injuring themselves”.
But he agrees that there are safety issues to overcome some of the more complex devices.
“Security is essential for robots which are placed in the body. It is a new ISO standard that covers this, but has not seen what happens when an exoskeleton fails”.