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Robotic exoskeleton replicates Iron Man


By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Last Updated: 5:01pm BST 25/04/2008

The latest Hollywood blockbuster inspired by a superhero comic is in danger of being overtaken by real-world developments in robotics.

 
Rex Jameson in the XOS exoskeleton which enables him to perform feats like Marvel Comic's hero Iron Man
Rex Jameson in the XOS exoskeleton: he performs feats similar to Marvel Comic's hero Iron Man

Audiences are expected to flood the cinemas to see Iron Man, which stars Robert Downey Jr as a superstar scientist who develops a robotic suit that can endow him with superhuman abilities.

He plays famed weapons designer Tony Stark who rustles up a mechanics suit to deal with a pesky warlord in Afghanistan, then hones it to create the stuff of superheroes.

Iron Man was invented by Stan Lee in the Sixties as part of the Marvel Comics stable of superheroes along with the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and the X-Men.

But now it turns out that real life equivalent of Downey has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to use advanced robotics to achieve a long held military fantasy, that of the mechanically turbocharged soldier.

Downey plays a wry, arrogant decadent, self serving billionaire who has an epiphany that prompts him to help others as Iron Man. The real life equivalent is Stephen Jacobsen, president of Raytheon Sarcos in Salt Lake City, Utah, and inventor of an "exoskeleton" that has captured the imagination of the US military.

Compared with his alter ego, he has a more down to earth view of the creative process. "People call it different things. Sometimes they call it inventing, sometimes they call it engineering. Sometimes they call it being a mad scientist or whatever," says Jacobsen.

"To us, it's the process of getting together, understanding the problems, goals and then designing something to satisfy the need."

But he admits that comic books can help the process of developing new technologies along. "I go to see all those movies. We all do. We all like them. They're fun. They stimulate your imagination."

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Rex Jameson, one of his test engineers, has been trying out Jacobsen's 150lb XOS exoskeleton, a mechanised suit that shadows his every motion to give him the kind of strength and endurance usually reserved for Marvel comics.

The real life version does not have a flame thrower, like the one in Iron Man. But, thanks to its mechanical muscles, it is strong and moves seamlessly to mirror Jameson's every motion.

To show off his superhuman endurance, Jameson can lift a bar loaded with 200lb for hundreds of times. "As far as software engineering goes, this job is about as good as it gets," he says.

"We get to write programs and we see them working on actual robots, that's very exciting. I've had a lot of software jobs before this. This one is definitely the most fun."

Jameson works at Sarcos, a robotics company that was recently purchased by the defence giant Raytheon. Although the military is most interested in using this mechanical shadow to boost the strength and endurance of soldiers, others are too, from firemen to the wheelchair-bound.

The basic idea is simple. As Jameson moves his hand a sensor in exoskeleton's handle detects a force and the computer - on the back of his suit - calculates how to move the exoskeleton to minimise the strain on his hand as a series of valves controls the flow of high-pressure hydraulic fluid that act like tendons to drive the joints.

What is crucial is that, given a few points of contact - the feet and hands, in this case - the smart machine is able to interpret the intended movements of the person strapped into it and react accordingly, turning a nifty piece of robotics into a superhero suit. It has taken three prototypes to get the blend of speed, power and sensitivity just right.

"I like the quick movements like the speed bag, playing soccer with it…and some of the power stuff," he says. "It can carry a 150lb payload while walking up ramps and walking up stairs…things I couldn't do myself."

Jameson never feels strain because the system instructs the robotic arms to grab the weight before he exerts any significant force. When he steps out of the XOS after a round on a weight machine, he's not even out of breath.

The XOS still has some way to go to achieve all the aims of the military. It does not make you move more quickly, or skilfully, than the user. None the less, it is the only full exoskeleton the military has moved into the next development stage; Raytheon Sarcos is now working under a two-year, $10-million US Army contract to develop the exoskeleton "to assist with logistics".

There's still some way to go to catch up with the aerial abilities of Iron Man. "When you're in the suit, it's definitely an empowering feeling," says Jameson, "but compared to what I've seen on the trailers, I can't fly…maybe we'll work on that next."

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