“Ian, can you normally lift 50 pounds with your pinky?” asked Gabriel Perko-Engle.
Ian Simons, like most humans, can’t.
Strapped into the robot-like “exosuit” he helped build though, Simons is capable of super-human powers. By pushing a joystick with his pinky, Simons moves the suit’s arm and effortlessly lifts a 50-pound weight.
The AJAX Exosuit, short for Amplified Juggernaut Assistance Exoskeleton, was assembled by eight high-schoolers and inspired by movies the teens had watched, like Iron Man, The Edge of Tomorrow and Elysium.
It’s not an exosuit that could be used for disabilities since it responds to physical movements, but it could have military and commercial applications since it can hold up to 400 pounds.
The high-schoolers from the Bay School of San Francisco, though, saw it not as a business but as a fun weekend project to prepare for the Maker Faire, an annual California gathering of makers and tinkerers.
The exosuit, though, was his most ambitious and hardest project so he recruited his friends. The group assembled on the weekends as part of the Young Makers program and raised money on Kickstarter and through sponsors to assemble their exosuit.
The project was moving smoothly with each teen focusing on his specialty, until they turned it on a month before Maker Faire and had the “oh-no” moment every maker dreads.
“Right after this thing was fully completed, we realised it wasn’t working,” Perko-Engel said.
Fixing the problem is worse than painstakingly troubleshooting faulty Christmas tree lights, the teens explained. Instead of just removing each bulb, the process is more like removing and re-creating each bulb until they figured out each issue.
Now, the suit responds to a person moving their legs or tapping the joystick arms up and down.
“You’re in it and it just feels really good,” Cole Yarbrough said.
The last hurdle is smoothing out how to walk in the exosuit.
When humans walk, they shift weight from side to side as they lift their feet off the ground. The exosuit can’t adjust side to side though, so the walking is a bit jilted right now and the group hasn’t done many walks outside of the carrier.
A few of the teens will keep working on designing the proper feet for it though. When asked what’s next, they joked, “maybe recreating the Thriller video?”