Businesses Bet on Iron Man-Like Exoskeletons
In the 1960s, the Incredible Hulk rose to fame as Marvel Comics’ green mutant antihero with superhuman strength and some serious anger issues. Now Lockheed Martin is betting that a modern-day hulk—make that HULC—will one day bring it supersize sales. Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, envisions a leap forward in battlefield mobility with its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), a wearable exoskeleton intended to let a soldier lug a 200-pound pack with minimal effort over a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) hike. That’s no small feat, since back strain is the military’s most common noncombat injury because of the heavy packs soldiers carry. Exoskeletons hold “tremendous potential” to ease those burdens, says David Accetta, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, in an e-mail. The Army is planning a field demonstration of the device in May, and the HULC device is being refined to be more easily worn under a uniform. Neither Lockheed nor the Army would disclose funding details.
Lockheed, Parker Hannifin, and a handful of startups are vying to find practical—and profitable—uses for the kind of bionic suits inspired by novelist Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers and Marvel editor Stan Lee’s Iron Man comic-book character. Wearable machines that enhance human muscle power may not only lighten soldiers’ loads but help factory workers hoist heavier tools and even enable some paraplegics to walk. “We’re now seeing a golden age in which we can produce this technology and derive benefit from it,” says Keith Maxwell, business development manager for Lockheed’s program. “There’s a host of industries where this works.”
The first sale of a medical exoskeleton to an individual for personal use (rather than to a rehabilitation center or hospital) came in September by Argo Medical Technologies, whose ReWalk exoskeleton assists patients who have lost the use of their legs. The company has since sold about 20 of the devices to individuals, all in Europe, making it a pioneer in a so-called human augmentation system market that may yield $400 million in annual sales by 2020, according to technology consultant ABI Research.
Lockheed says it hasn’t estimated the value of any contracts for its military HULC, nor for the nascent industrial market for its Mantis commercial assistive device, which will go on sale later this year for an undisclosed price. Still, developing technology for both civilian and military use could help Lockheed as it confronts reductions in U.S. arms spending. The Mantis device is meant to help workers who handle heavy equipment avoid fatigue or back injuries. It has a mechanical extension for a wearer’s arm and absorbs the strain from hefty power tools such as grinders or sanders, Maxwell says, yielding productivity gains of more than 30 percent. “It turns workers away from being a weight lifter and into a craftsman,” he says.
Parker Hannifin, the No. 1 global manufacturer of motion and control devices, is trying to expand into medical products with its upcoming Indego exoskeleton for those with spinal injuries. The Indego breaks into five pieces and resembles elongated, plastic football thigh pads. Ekso Bionics’ competing device looks like the lower half of a black metal skeleton able to stand by itself on foot pads. In both, electric motors amplify the strength in their wearers’ limbs or, in the case of the wheelchair-bound, provide the user with mobility. Computers and sensors help with balance and guidance. “There’s a huge wave of human augmentation coming,” says Ekso Chief Executive Officer Nathan Harding, whose company has devices in use at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, and other spinal injury centers. “It’s in its infancy.”
Parker Hannifin’s Indego model will go on sale in 2014 at a price the company says is competitive with Argo’s €52,000 ($67,230) ReWalk unit. Indego, developed in partnership with Vanderbilt University, is aimed at an estimated 700,000 Americans with permanent lower-limb disabilities who would be capable of using the device, says Achilleas Dorotheou, the Parker Hannifin program’s business unit manager.
The company is playing catch-up with Israel-based Argo, which was founded by Amit Goffer, who was paralyzed in a 1997 automobile accident. The Israeli manufacturer, which has sold about 65 medical exoskeletons, still lacks federal clearance for sales to individuals in the U.S. Argo may offer an American product without stair-climbing capabilities to speed approval, CEO Larry Jasinski says.