Exoskeletons In My Closet: What Raytheon’s Robotic Suit Really Means for the Field
Last week, Waltham, MA-based defense contractor Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) unveiled its latest prototype “exoskeleton.” This is a powered robotic suit that a soldier or worker could strap on in the field to enable them to load heavy equipment faster, carry supplies or munitions using less energy, or—let’s face it—just look ultra-cool. Raytheon said in a statement that the new robotic suit is “lighter, stronger, and faster than its predecessor, yet it uses 50 percent less power.” The device is powered by high-pressure hydraulics and gives its wearer some degree of super strength.
In the demo, which took place at Raytheon’s Sarcos subsidiary in Salt Lake City, UT, an engineer wearing the suit (which includes arms and legs) punched through some boards, did pushups, and lifted weights with little effort. The news was reported fairly breathlessly by media outlets including CNET, Wired, Scientific American, and the L.A. Times. And I understand why—it’s a sexy technology that conjures up visions of “Iron Man” and mythical references to superhuman strength. Plus it’s far more accessible than all the top-secret stuff Raytheon does that is actually useful for the military—radar systems, cybersecurity, missile defense, and so forth.
But I wondered how much progress has really been made in exoskeletons—in the fundamental robotics, sensing, control, and energy technologies necessary to make a robot suit powerful, safe, and reliable to move around in. Raytheon declined to be interviewed for this story, but I did some digging around.
After all, I’ve been following the field since 2001, when I worked in the old Leg Lab at MIT, which was home to robots that could walk, run, hop, and keep their balance. Back then, the main problems with designing a robotic exoskeleton were how to make it powerful without being clunky, how to control it safely, and how to supply enough energy to it.
In 2002, I attended a private meeting of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program on “exoskeletons for human performance augmentation” (from which I still sport a nifty backpack, though it doesn’t give me super strength). The program manager was Ephrahim Garcia, a professor at Cornell University, who later handed it off to engineer John Main. At the time, about a dozen universities and research groups were competing to build exoskeleton technologies for DARPA, and Sarcos had one of the designs that eventually won out. A couple years later, I visited Sarcos (which Raytheon acquired in 2007) and got a tour of the Utah lab and an early demo from its leader, Steve Jacobsen, for a photo essay in Technology Review.
My first impression from the demo last week was that not much has changed in the field in the past decade. That’s a bit surprising, since other kinds of robots—Predator aerial drones, PackBots, Roombas—have become increasingly sophisticated as they’ve been commercialized and deployed by the military. As it turns out, though, my first impression of the Raytheon device was not entirely correct.
“They’ve clearly demonstrated increases in strength,” says Hugh Herr, a professor who leads the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, which works on things like smart … Next Page »