Richmond company developing Iron Man-like technology for soldiers

Richmond company developing Iron Man-like suit for soldiers
This image was captured from a Forbes video interview at Ekso Bionics in Richmond.

Richmond-based Ekso Bionics has been creating quite a stir lately with emerging technology that aims to augment human strength and endurance by wrapping a robot around a person – much like Iron Man or RoboCop.

The 8-year-old company, which operates in the historic Ford Motor assembly plant, is developing exoskeletons that allow humans to walk, run or climb using far less energy, thus allowing them to travel longer distances.

One of many future applications of the technology would be to develop suits of armor that allow humans to bash through doors without injury.

Don’t believe us? Then check out this Forbes interview with Ekso Bionics co-founder Nathan Harding, who said the U.S. military hopes to have a suit developed that will “get as close to Iron Man as possible in about four years.”

“That’s a self-supporting suit of armor, basically an armor suit that you can bash through the door on and it can protect you from everything,” Harding said.

Ekso Bionics was the first company to get any of the military contracts, since it builds the infrastructure that such a suit would hang on, Harding added.

Of course, the company is producing exoskeletons for a host of nonmilitary applications.

Forbes journalist Bruce Upbin was the first to try out an exoskeleton that essentially allows humans to walk while using less energy, which is useful not only for soldiers but for the elderly, paralyzed or even hikers.

“The computer reads leg movements and kicks in the right hydraulic boost (with the reassuringly RoboCop-like zzzt-zzzt-zzzt sound) to kick my legs forward just enough so I don’t have to work as hard,” Upbin reported. “Walking quickly in the suit is almost like being buffeted by a light wind at your back. When I break into a light jog, the motors get my knees up just a bit higher than I normally would.”

Such an application would allow soldiers lugging heavy equipment walk farther distances. There is even a suit to help industrial workers pull longer hours, as it helps them better endure the weight of tools.

“It’s a suit that directs the weight of a heavy load from above one’s head to the ground so that repairmen or welders can use heavy tools for longer periods of time,” Upbin wrote.

Ekso began at the UC Berkeley robotics and human engineering lab, where engineers discovered how to develop exoskeletons using far less power than existing models and expanded with the procurement of defense contracts.

The company’s current application for the technology is to assist in rehabilitation. As Forbes explained, the company has sold dozens of commercial exoskeletons to medical centers to benefit patients with paralysis and injuries.

“Sensors detect when the wearer’s weight shifts and activate motors that can lift them up from a chair and assist in moving them forward in a reciprocal gait,” Forbes reported.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Ekso Bionics has received a grant to develop exoskeletons for children in collaboration with the Department of Pediatric Rehabilitation at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.