Move over, Tony Stark — factory workers may soon be wearing robotic suits that help them lift and carry heavy objects.
Electronics giant Panasonic recently announced it will begin selling these “exoskeletons,” which were developed in collaboration with the company ActiveLink, MIT Technology Review reported.
“We expect that exoskeletons, or power-assist suits, will be widely used in people’s lives in 15 years,” said Panasonic spokesperson Mio Yamanaka, who is based in Osaka, Japan, as quoted by Tech Review.
The suit, which weighs just over 13 pounds and attaches to the back, thighs, and feet, allows its wearer to carry an additional 33 pounds. The device has undergone testing with warehouse handlers in Osaka, and is being tested now by forestry workers.
Powered exoskeletons, wearable mechanical frames powered by a system of motors, are increasingly making their way into the market, from helping people with lower limb disabilities walk again, to outfitting troops with armour that gives them super strength and perception. Now, these devices are starting to play a role in manual labour, too. And they could be especially helpful for older workers.
The Panasonic suit contains force sensors that detect when the wearer is trying to lift or carry a heavy object, and a lightweight carbon-fibre motor that amplifies their motions and gives their muscles extra oomph. The company is also testing a much larger suit that could help workers carry up to 220 pounds, according to Tech Review.
Panasonic isn’t the only company working on exoskeletons for industrial use. Cyberdyne, another Japanese company, sells suits that use nerve signals to detect how the wearer aims to move before applying force to assist with the movement. Cyberdyne recently partnered with Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to provide it with exoskeletons that can help airport staff schlep heavy luggage.
Meanwhile, Ekso Bionics, headquartered in Richmond, California, is developing an industrial exoskeleton that helps the wearer lift heavy power tools. Ekso also has a suit designed to help people with weakness in their lower extremities stand up and walk naturally. In addition, the US military has contracted Ekso to develop its armoured TALOS exoskeleton to protect soldiers on the battlefield.
The ReWalk exoskeleton, from a company called ReWalk Robotics, has produced the first powered exoskeleton to be approved by the FDA. The device helps people with spinal cord injuries that affect their lower limbs stand upright, walk, and even, in some cases, climb stairs.
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