A Suit That Turns A Person Into A Robot (Sort Of)

Jun 11, 2015
Originally published on June 11, 2015 11:30 am

A few years ago, the Defense Department invited researchers from around the world to build robots that could respond to disasters. The machines were supposed to go up stairs, drive a car and clear debris.

The competition to test the robots was last week. For many of the robots, it did not go well.

It's really hard to get robots to do basic things. One possible workaround, at least for some settings, is to combine a person and a machine.

Russ Angold is in the business of building exoskeletons. He runs a company called Ekso Bionics, which makes suits that are designed make you stronger and less prone to injury. I wore one. It gave me superhuman strength. Sort of.

Suits like this one allow construction workers to lift really heavy objects. The company is also building an exoskeleton for people with spinal cord injuries, and another for U.S. special operations forces.

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Some of the hardest things for robots to do are things you probably mastered in the first 12 months of your life, like walking, picking stuff up, just exploring the world. As Steve Henn from our Planet Money podcast explains, some researchers think the best way to design a robot to do that kind of stuff might be to put a person inside.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: If you want a good laugh, go online and search YouTube for the phrase DARPA robots falling down. This video is from a robot competition held last week. It had the smartest robot designers in the world. And yet, when their bots tried to do some simple things, like walking up stairs, they fell over backward.



HENN: One got confused by a doorknob and collapsed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh. What happened?

HENN: These fierce robots often ended up looking like clowns slipping on banana peels. And while it's kind of funny, it highlights this real problem in robotics - teaching robots to do simple things, things babies can master, is really tough. Russ Angold, co-founder of Eksorobotics, thinks there's a better way.

RUSS ANGOLD: I think we have this amazing thing called a human that - it's very capable in lots of things, right? We're very adaptable. You can throw us in any situation. We can figure out how to do the task. The thing we are weak at is endurance.

HENN: Angold wonders, why does it have to be a choice, either use a robot or use a human? Why not build something that's half-robot and half-human? So Russ Angold is building robotic exoskeletons. These suits take things you and I can do and make us better at them.

So does this thing give me superhuman strength?

ANGOLD: It allows you to defy gravity is basically the only strength it can give you. So we can make your tools weightless.

HENN: The exoskeleton looks like a backpack attached to two big leg braces, the kind of braces you might see on an injured skier.

ANGOLD: So put it on like a backpack, put the straps in. I'll help buckle your legs in.

HENN: They snap on a mechanical arm to the frame, and then Russ hands me a 40-pound cement buffer.

ANGOLD: So there you go.

HENN: Oh, wow.

A big industrial spring in my mechanical arm takes the weight and shifts it to my leg brace. This big tool feels weightless. Exorobotics is building exoskeletons with added power as well. They make a suit for people with spinal cord injuries. It allows them to walk. They make another for skilled construction workers that will help them do their jobs as they get older, maybe into their 60s or 70s. And they make one exoskeleton - nicknamed the Iron Man Suit - for U.S. special forces.

ANGOLD: We've taken these things out snowshoeing. We've gone up trails, so we've - these things have been everywhere.

HENN: The Iron Man Suit uses motors to assist with the heavy work of walking. The frame carries the load. But it is the soldier inside who's in control. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

SHAPIRO: You can see Steve as a robot at npr.org.

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