It’s a great relief to learn that scientific progress is unhampered by anything as trivial as fashion sense. To demonstrate this point, the Berkeley Robotics Laboratory has for some time been developing BLEEX – the Berkeley Lower Extremities Exoskeleton. These imposing cyber-trousers will, it’s said, enable warriors of the future to walk vast distances and carry huge loads, courtesy of 40 sensors, numerous hydraulic motors and an almost complete disregard for the inadvertently comical. There are no buttons, no joysticks or other paraphernalia that might otherwise impede the relentless march towards tomorrow. As the demonstration video below makes clear, this is a mightily impressive achievement. Though the fearsome noise produced by the trousers will, I suspect, prohibit their use in missions where ninja-like stealth is required.
According to the press release, these electronic trousers “enhance human strength and endurance” and are controlled by a local area network that functions “much like the human nervous system.” The user steps into a pair of modified army boots that are then attached to the exoskeleton. A pair of metal legs frames the outside of a person’s own legs to “facilitate ease of movement.” The wearer then dons a vest that is attached to the frame and engine. Conveniently, if the machine should break down or run out of fuel, the exoskeleton legs can easily be removed and the device converts to a large backpack.
“We set out to create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle,” says Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. "Many scientists and engineers have been attempting to build a robotic strength enhancing device since the 1950s, and they’ve failed… This dream is now becoming a reality.” Although the device itself weighs a hefty 50kg, the machine takes its own weight, with the control system ensuring that the centre of gravity is always within the pilot's footprint. In addition to its own weight, BLEEX will carry a 32 kilogram payload within the backpack. “To the pilot this would feel like they were carrying just 2 kilograms,” says Kazerooni.
Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), itself funded by the Pentagon, BLEEX could also assist paramedics in carrying wounded people from disaster areas or help fire fighters haul heavy equipment up countless flights of stairs. One hopes a civilian model will follow, transforming trips to the supermarket beyond all recognition. According to Kazerooni, the exoskeleton is designed to be “ergonomic, highly maneuverable and technically robust so the wearer can walk, squat, bend and swing from side to side without noticeable reductions in agility.” The Berkley team is currently awaiting the go-ahead to mass produce their bipedal masterpiece. In the meantime, a quieter version, fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, is in the planning stages.
More robot legs – this time minus the soft, fleshy human – can be seen in action below, care of Boston Dynamics:
I'll need an army of robots. Funding always welcome.