Back in the day, Ford Motors’ Richmond, California assembly plant use to assemble cars from a frame to fully driveable automobile. Today, the plant is producing a completely different kind of machine, a war machine that combines man and mechanics. The plant is now home to Ekso Bionics, a company that’s building exoskeletons for soldiers as well as rehab clinics and hospitals.
A new Darpa-funded project called Warrior Web aims to create a low power (under 100 watts) and lightweight (40 lbs), under-the clothing exoskeleton that would allow soldiers the ability to walk, run or climb farther and faster without extra effort. Forbes was recently invited to the lab to check out the project and even test out one of the suits. Basically, they got to live out every “RoboCop” fan’s dream.
The Warrior Web exo is controlled by a computer attached to the camouflage backpack. 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. 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. Overall, the experience is quieter and the gear is lighter-weight than anything out there.
The company spawned from a series of projects at UC Berkley in 2007 when researchers discovered how to make a suit that ran on less energy compared to previous models. While the company is developing suits for the military, they’re also working on suits for injured children. In 2012, the company shipped the first commercialized robotic exoskeleton, to Craig Hospital in Denver and earlier this year began working on a child’s suit for pediatric rehabilitation with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland. Iron man suits for soldiers, iron man suits for kids, iron man suits for all.