Ever wish you could lift the back end of a car like Schwarzenegger, or haul a couple of cartons of books up the stairs of your house without making two trips? Well now you can, with the help of your very own exoskeleton. Yup—it’s a bodysuit with super human powers that won’t get Tom Ford to take a second look, but it might turn Iron Man’s head.
Panasonic will start rolling out its mechanical outfits this September according to M.I.T. Technology Review to assist with heavy lifting tasks that mere mortals struggle to do on their own. The Assist Suit AWN-03 model is strapped to the legs, waist, and shoulders. It features a lightweight carbon-fiber motor that weighs a little over 13 pounds and uses sensors to help the user carry an additional 33 pounds. The cost? About $8,045. While widespread adoption won’t probably happen for another decade or so, the device has been tested by warehouse workers in Osaka, Japan, and is currently being used in trials with forestry workers. A second model in development will help users lift objects as heavy as 220 pounds.
The Panasonic suit is one of a small but growing number of exoskeletons available commercially. No longer in the realm of science fiction, these body suits could help in construction, delivery services, agriculture, and public works. Last year workers at a Daewoo shipyard suited up in similar apparel in South Korea, home to the world’s three biggest shipbuilding companies.
Once limited to medical and military settings, the new suits are now being adapted for wider commercial use and could help ease back pain and occupational injuries for manual laborers. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported 3.0 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2013.)
German auto-makers BMW and Audi both have wearable devices in the works to ease stresses from repetitive motion injuries. BMW teamed up with researchers at the Technical University of Munich to provide workers with a custom-made, 3-D-printed orthotic device for the thumb. And Audi is testing a wearable device from Noonee for workers who do a lot of crouching.
So far ReWalk Robotics has the only exoskeleton that is FDA-approved for use by people with spinal cord injuries. According to SlashGear, the company has sold 66 exoskeletons so far, with the cost of 11 reimbursed by insurance companies. ReWalk’s latest model, the ReWalk Personal 6.0, is helping paraplegics walk again.
The suits can not only help power people up, they also can slow people down. Last month insurance company Genworth Financial debuted an “aging suit,” the R70i suit to the Aspen Ideas Festival 2015 so that folks could experience the impaired vision, hearing loss, and muscle loss and mobility challenges associated with aging firsthand.
So what’s the heaviest things about these devices? The expensive Lithium batteries, of course.