December 18, 2011
Lab Report XVI
Technology’s first directive should be to improve the quality of our lives. At UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory (BLEEX), they are doing just that. The premise is simple. Develop “a class of robotic systems worn or operated by people to augment human mechanical strength, while the wearer’s intellect remains the central control system […]
Technology’s first directive should be to improve the quality of our lives. At UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory (BLEEX), they are doing just that. The premise is simple. Develop “a class of robotic systems worn or operated by people to augment human mechanical strength, while the wearer’s intellect remains the central control system for manipulating the robot.” The key to this directive, however, is the target user, from a rescue worker to a soldier. This means that robots benefit the immediate users, as well as those who surround them.
Take for instance two older BLEEX projects, the ExoHikerTM and the ExoClimberTM. The Exohiker is a skeletal system that attaches to the whole body, from the shoes to the neck. It is powered by batteries (some versions are solar-charged) and controlled by a small computer with a hand-held interface. Essentially, it is meant to help the wearer bear up to an additional 150-pound payload without experiencing any additional strain. The ExoClimber builds upon the ExoHiker. It has an additional feature that allows the wearer to climb slopes and stairs bearing a load of up to 150 pounds without extra strain. It also sports computer controls and a battery pack that can be recharged.
Images via UC Berkeley BLEEX
Then there is the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC™). It develops the two prior projects mentioned above–it’s a combination of the two. It is a better design then either one of the others. For one, the HULC can accommodate a heavier payload, up to 200 pounds. Most impressive is the fact that it actually decreases metabolic exertion or “cost” to the wearer. In other words, it reduces the amount of oxygen a person expends while wearing the device. What’s more, the user can remove the device easily. But the enormous impact of HULC is on the person’s energy level which can be either what it was prior to the beginning of the expedition or even greater than it was before. In this way the device can significantly increase the range and length of tasks the wearer can perform.
HULC, image via UC Berkeley BLEEX
Many of the initial applications for these devices involve the military, but they can be useful for other groups. Humanitarian efforts, whether to aid those stranded in remote regions or in extreme weather, are just two examples. Lost mountain hikers, or campers trapped by flash floods will benefit as will developing nations. Because this device increases the distance its users can go without expending their own energy reserves, the possibility of reaching remote sites that are inaccessible to vehicles is greatly increased. The technology is available now. As the devices become more broadly used, the possibilities of what they can help their wearers accomplish will increase.
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Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to Archinect, Architect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @xiaying.