Opinions & Editorials

The Danger of Confusing Hollywood Exoskeletons With Reality

The Danger of Confusing Hollywood Exoskeletons With Reality

“Exoskeletons Will Never Happen: Here’s Why” exclaims Hank from Enginomics, an up-and-coming YouTube channel focused on engineering, economics, and technology. In his seven-minute video, Hank outlines why exoskeletons will never see the light of day and will become another forgotten technology like holograms and flying cars. It is worth pausing to note that fundamentally he is correct, but only when it comes to science-fiction and fantasy-based wearable robots. The four points brought up in the video (link below) are commonly encountered when Hollywood exoskeletons are mixed in with those that can be purchased in real life.

Hype

There is a reason why the Exoskeleton Report always emphasizes that this is a “hype-free” source for exo technology information. The creator of Enginomics correctly points out that occasionally the media has picked up on wearable prototypes and ran wild with the stories, with one article exaggerating the claims more than the next. Effectively, creating a game of broken telephone, where hype and expectations can be blown way out of proportion. Even if they tried, there is little that exoskeleton developers can do once things snowball out of control. This is why websites like this one and BionicsForEveryone exist to create a more measured conversation on what bionics technology can and can’t do at this time. As the video suggests, definitely avoid articles that claim “we will be all IronMan soon” for that is not the goal of any exoskeleton developer.

Energy Density

Not all exoskeletons are powered. There are many examples of passive and quasi passive exoskeletons that require little to no external energy source. Regardless, battery technology has significantly improved and many powered exoskeletons can run for four hours or longer. The energy density problem is important to be considered in context. The current battery technology may not be sufficient for a seven-day forward operations deployment but it could be quite enough for a warehouse worker or a physical rehabilitation session. Battery technology has made significant strides and improvements while simultaneously exoskeleton controllers have become more efficient.

Motion-Control

As mentioned earlier, not all exoskeletons require precise sensors and controllers. Those that do, have developed a reputation for lagging behind the user, creating a sensation of “swimming” in an exoskeleton (whether this is a relic of the past or not, the Exoskeleton Report team has never experienced this). The cost of sensor technology has plummeted in recent years. Any claims that this is a hurdle that can’t, or even hasn’t been cleared already, sound shallow.

The claim in the video that the TALOS project was canceled because of poor sensor technology is also an odd one, see The Inside Story Behind the Pentagon’s Ill-Fated Quest for a Real Life ‘Iron Man’ Suit – Task&Purpose. Ultimately, the TALOS program was canceled due to an unrealistic scope: a stealthy and compact armored suit that can bash through doors without taking any damage. In effect, the science-fiction of the silver screen met the reality of real-world technological capabilities, and TALOS was shelved.

Application

Finally, the author makes a very common mistake in their justification for writing off exoskeleton technology: unrealistic application. Military exoskeletons do not have to be active-combat devices. There is a myriad of logistical and maintenance requirements for running a defense force. Consider, for example, maintaining an aircraft on an aircraft carrier. Neither the ship nor the airship will change their shape or form to make them more accessible. Maintenance technicians get injured on the job while bending and contorting to service these aircraft. Exoskeletons are not meant to replace already existing logistic solutions like forklifts, and the hierarchy of controls should always be followed. However, there is a large gap in material handling that is not covered by the current solutions (too heavy for a safe 2-person lift but simultaneously too light or inaccessible for a forklift). Writing off exoskeleton technology based on an incorrect understanding of their application is understandable, but inaccurate.

Ambitious Technology Meets an Underwhelming Reality

Imagine for a second that you have seen cars and automobiles ONLY in the context of Hollywood movies. Think about what you would expect? For example, in the 1977 James Bond franchise The Spy Who Loved Me, the spymaster converts his car into a submarine that fires torpedoes (and spoiler alert) is even able to shoot a helicopter from underwater, then effortlessly transforms the machine back into a ground vehicle. In the latest Fast and Furious installment, a car is even able to fly into space. Hollywood-based vehicles regularly survive crashes and wrecks which the main characters walk out of without a scratch. In the context of fantasy-based vehicles, no real-world car could possibly compare. The same holds true for exoskeletons.

Science fiction has excited and energized millions of people in relation to exoskeleton technology. However, it has been a double edge sword. Just like fantasy-based vehicles, exoskeletons will never fly while shooting lasers and missiles while protecting their user from lethal impacts and galaxy conquesting warlords. Taking in mind these completely unrealistic expectations it is easy to see how one can be disillusioned by the reality of exoskeleton technology.

Exoskeleton technology will never simultaneously grant us super-human strength with the ability to fly and fight monstrous alien queens. They will never help us lift over cars or jump over buildings (other than the occasional PR stunt). However, the technology can still be revolutionary. Just like humanity went through a digital revolution that forever changed the way we communicate with one another, wearable robotics can bring a physical revolution in which we change how we think about work, physical therapy, physical disabilities, neurological conditions, and even what it means to get old.

Reference:

Enginomics – YouTube Channel – Link

2 Comments

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  • Bobby, SPOT ON. Responsible writing. Factual. Objective. Critical to really understanding what people would take away from a biased commentary video. While the author makes some good observations, it just sets a product up for failure because the product is unrealistically expected to function where… well, lets be honest, was never intended to go. And NO EXO known to date is supposed to provide super-human strength nor exceed what a human can do safely on their own. Thank you for your candid, focused, objective analysis. We need more of this.

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