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Vjeran Pavic, Re/code

Science


In the heart of Silicon Valley, lining the wall in one of the world’s most advanced robotics labs, is a row of sewing machines.

It’s a different tool for a different type of robot. A team of researchers at SRI International, which gave the world the mouse, surgical robots and Siri, is stitching together lightweight under-suits embedded with batteries, wires, computers and motors.

They’re effectively making wearable robots, with an actuator along the calf that tugs up with every step, taking off some of the load for the human being. Or, as the team is fond of saying, it literally pulls you up by your bootstraps.

Re/code recently visited the lab to check out SRI’s “SuperFlex” prototype in person. To see it in action, please check out the video below (it’s the least you can do to celebrate National Robotics Week!). The good sport who demonstrated the snug suit is Paul Birkmeyer, research engineer for SRI Robotics.

As with so much in robotics, the project began with a DARPA-funded program, known as Warrior Web, aimed at helping soldiers who have to carry heavy loads over extended distances. The Department of Defense division tapped research institutions to explore ways of reducing injuries, adding endurance, increasing carrying capacity and improving solider performance — all with a garment that doesn’t get in the way of body armor or inhibit movement. They required it to weigh less than 20 pounds and suck up no more than 100 watts of power.

“As the equipment load on our warriors goes up, so does the number of injuries at key body joints and soft tissues,” Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, then DARPA’s Warrior Web program manager, said in an earlier statement. “The vision is to create a suit, carefully mapped to human physiology, which fits comfortably underneath the uniform and outer protective gear to provide functional and adaptive support.”

Researchers at Harvard, Stanford and Boston Dynamics, which was recently acquired by Google, also participated in the first phase of the program. The goal of Warrior Web Alpha was to develop the core technologies. SRI declined to disclose the amount of DARPA funding it received, but Harvard’s contract ran into the millions.

The aim of Phase B, for which DARPA began seeking applications last summer, is to weave the advances into an integrated suit.

There’s been considerable buzz in recent years about exoskeletons, bulky and rigid robotic systems that can aid soldiers or allow paraplegics to stand upright. SRI’s work arguably represents the next generation of the concept, where the goal is more akin to constructing “exomuscles” and “exotendons.”

“The Warrior Web program is really an anti-exoskeleton program,” said Rich Mahoney, director of the robotics program at SRI. “It fits under your clothes, it’s quiet, it’s comfortable, it works very synergistically with your movements and just adds a little bit of energy at the right time during your gait to reduce the overall amount of energy that your body is using.”

In some ways, the Warrior Web program represents the professed ideal of roboticists: Not replacing human parts or tasks, but augmenting them. Making people better.

SRI is initially working toward a system that can make carrying a 100-pound backpack over 10 miles feel like something closer to hauling 50 pounds, which any backpacker can tell you is a big difference. But Mahoney believes advances in the technology could eventually allow people to run faster, jump further and lift more — essentially the Six Million Dollar Man sans surgery.

SRI’s work with DARPA is ongoing, but it plans to commercialize the technology for consumer applications as well.

It’s easy to imagine applications beyond the battlefield pretty much anywhere manual labor occurs. Other potential uses include physical rehabilitation and therapy, including helping stroke victims regain movement or improving mobility for the elderly, Mahoney said.

“One of the goals for me in our program here at SRI is to try to position our technologies as platforms from which broader solutions can come,” he said. “I think we could see applications of these wearable robots that we’re not even really thinking about yet.”



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