The concept of a lightweight bodysuit that amplifies human strength and mobility whilst healing the body may well strike you as outlandishly futuristic, and perhaps a little frightening for its destructive superhuman potential. However, Superflex, a non-profit research and development start-up, is quick to assure that this is both an achievable dream and one that will be put to noble (albeit slightly less electrifying) use: assisting the elderly and those disabled by musculoskeletal injuries to achieve everyday mobility.
Superflex is an offshoot of the California-based research and development company SRI International, whose focus is to develop technology and biomedical advancements in the name of making people healthier, safer, and more productive. SRI International has made incredible progress since their inception in artificial intelligence, cancer detection, anti-infective treatments and engineering. They are also responsible for developing Siri in 2007 – the Siri that lives in your phone and that you’re probably uncomfortably familiar with by now. Now Superflex aims to markedly improve the lives of the disabled with innovative computer technology that has never been seen before – and they claim it will be ready for purchase in two years’ time.
Here’s how it works: the exosuit will be equipped with sensors and flexible motors to correct the movement of the wearer whenever it is necessary. Using actuators that resemble soft muscle and a computer feedback system to rapidly send commands to the exosuit, the muscles will be given a boost of strength that can readily assist wearers in everyday activities.
The adaptive controller will also give its wearer the ability for heightened reflexes and store energy in spring technology to prevent fatigue and injury whenever needed. All of these functions will (rather astoundingly) be monitored and controlled from a digital interface stored on a normal smartphone.
For the elderly, chronically disabled and those undergoing physical therapy, this could mean the small but vital difference in being able to stand up and walk unassisted. Superflex envision that their suit will be lightweight and compact enough to even wear under clothes, giving wearers the ability to navigate independently in day-to-day life.
The project has also garnered military interest – although for the moment, this is only in the capacity of preventing lumbar problems in soldiers carrying heavy packs for days at a time.
While Superflex’s exosuit may sound like it has serious superhero potential, its developers emphasize their cause of simply improving lives. Manish Kothari, head of SRI International ventures, states: “You know, if you could get my 99 year-old grandfather to wear a piece of clothing that no one can see and it is actually helping him walk without a walker, that’s essentially Superman-type activity”. Superflex also maintains that while there may be opportunities in the future to enhance human abilities with this type of technology, it’s a far more worthwhile undertaking to simply give people the option to live a normal life.
Superflex has asserted that the exosuit can be developed and ready for commercial production by 2018, but for the moment it is a matter of reducing the cost of the robotics involved as well as improving the ergonomics and design for a global marketplace where it will surely be in high demand.