Have you heard of the Robo-Suit? Japanese scientists are responding to the problem of creaky-boned farmers in their country by designing muscle suits that can be worn over the farmer’s khakis. Two-thirds of Japan’s farmers are over the age of 65. And much Japanese agriculture operates on small, hand-tended estates. Not so many big tractors there. If the farmer reaches down to pluck a carrot, the exoskeleton provides back support. If the farmer holds a heavy load, the exoskeleton can straighten, strengthen, and support legs. Grape-picking farmers are provided upright posture. One prototype has eight motors, multiple motion sensors and voice recognition software that allows the user to give it commands. When the machine recognizes that a load is becoming too heavy or muscles are getting too tired, it compensates for the human’s strength with its metal and plastic frame.
They are working on this idea in Korea, too. Your next Hyundai might be assembled by a small army of bionic men. Or at least loaded onto a ship built by bionic men – the sprawling Korean Daewoo ship-building yard has begun testing human-robot hybrids. Workers strapped into a prototype exoskeleton can effortlessly lift 30 kilos (65 pounds) – about the weight of a super of honey. New models will lift almost 200 pounds. The shipyard has just inked a contract to build 10 of the world’s largest freighters (each will be nearly half a kilometre long and hold 18,000 containers). The men in suits will soon be hoisting and holding and welding pieces of steel heavier than themselves. The suit itself is heavy (about 50 pounds) but the worker feels none of that weight because the aluminum and steel frame’s mass is distributed through the skeleton down into the wearer’s boots.
The military has been watching. And for years, they have been developing their own exoskeletons. The goal is to have a platoon of soldiers trudging hours on end, carrying 200-pounds of gear, possibly even napping while their robo-suits are marching forward on auto-pilot. Special-Ops and Navy Seals are expected to be outfitted with some model of Iron Man suits by late-summer 2018. A beekeeper might not benefit from all the nifty flame-throwers and razor-fingers, but the fact that military use exists makes the suit’s reality and rapid development more likely.
Meanwhile, the other big segment of America’s economy, health care, is also beginning to see exoskeletons as a part of the rehab for patients who have suffered strokes and accidents which limit mobility. But the really remarkable breakthrough will come when light-weight, easily donned robo-suits allow paraplegics to stand and walk. This has already been accomplished in trials. In June, the FDA approved the sale of ReWalk units, a robotic system developed by an Israeli tech company. It was tested at Mount Sinai (the hospital, not the hill) by Errol Samuels, a former athlete who says getting out of his wheelchair was “like a breath of fresh air.” Indeed, exercise and mobility are tough for people forced into a sedentary life by disease or accident. This system would improve circulation and general health, to say nothing of mood and quality of life. As my own paralysis advances year-by-year (I have a motor neuron disorder, similar to Stephen Hawking’s illness), so anything that can increase my activity level is eagerly sought.
I want one. Beehive honey boxes often weigh 40 kilos (over 80 pounds). And the average beekeeper’s age is now 57. This exoskeleton-robo-suit would find a ready market in the army of honey-harvesters in North America. Imagine working through an apiary in half the time at a third the effort. The farmer’s friend has been on sale in Japan for a million yen (about $10,000) per suit, but the price is expected to drop to about $5000. For beekeepers, the robo-suit would strap overtop the bee-suit. Five thousand dollars is beyond the reach of most beekeepers, but if it eliminates back surgery later in life, it’s a worthy investment. And if you are already having trouble walking, such an outfit could keep you active a lot longer.