We Try a New Exoskeleton for Construction Workers

Russ Angold, the co-founder and CTO at exoskeleton maker Ekso Bionics, says he can tell how old someone is by which pop-culture reference they make when he tells them what he does for a living. Kids talk about the suit Tom Cruise wears in Edge of Tomorrow. Millenials name-check Iron Man. Gen-Xers go classic: Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Nobody ever mentions Starship Troopers.

But building a power-enhancing exosuit isn’t easy. And nobody knows that better than Ekso. Angold has his own high standards to live up to; when he was a kid, his brother decided to become a Navy SEAL—and Angold promised to become an engineer to build cool gear for him. “The spec that the users want for all exoskeletons is very clear,” says Angold. “It can’t suck.”

Ekso started out trying to build Iron Man suits for the military, then spread into the world of physical therapy, with powered walking suits that help people learn to walk again after strokes or accidents. Over 4,000 people have used those. Now Ekso is trying to break into a new market: construction. The Ekso Works Industrial Exoskeleton is an unpowered frame that lets a person heft heavy powertools as if they weighed nothing at all.

exolabs-inline Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

The key to typical exoskeletons is power. That was the genius of the first Iron Man movie—the macguffin, nerds will recall, was the “arc reactor,” a fantastically small source of huge amounts of power. The lack of any such magical technology in the real world has held exosuit development back for a decade, especially for the military. A human being uses about 10 watts just standing around, and 1 kilowatt working, according to Ekso. No battery can keep a suit going all day long with that output.

The industrial exoskeleton doesn’t care about that, though. It’s unpowered, relying instead on counterweights and a standard, sprung arm used on image-stabilizing steadicams. The trick is the carbon fiber harness and metal-tube frame running down a user’s legs. It translates the weight of whatever’s on the end of the arm down through the suit and into the ground.

The effect is unsettling. When I strapped into the suit, a grinder that I’d previously had trouble holding above my head for more than a few minutes felt utterly weightless…until I tried to move it away from my body. Then the counterweights kicked in and moved me around in the harness.

Angold had warned me about this, I realized. “The suit can take the weight of the tool, but you’ll still feel the inertial effects,” he said. The weight of the tool was getting shunted mechanically through the suit’s Vibram-soled footplates, but the mass was still banging me around. And walking was awkward, but just a little practice improved my gait almost immediately.

So by and large the suit works as advertised. Now the question is one of marketing and uptake. The construction business—which is what Ekso is targeting—is perhaps a bit more conservative than the military. Also, Ekso wouldn’t discuss the price of the suit, saying instead that the company would prefer to “focus on value.”

One other bit of weirdness: Last year Lockheed Martin sold unpowered, steadicam-arm-armed exoskeletons to the US Navy. The suit is called the Fortis, and if you look at the images, you can see that it looks a lot like the Ekso Works Industrial Exoskeleton. I asked Heidi Darling, Ekso’s director of marketing communications, about the similarity, and she emailed: “LM Fortis is Ekso Bionics technology (Ekso Bionics Inside) and it has been designed primarily for Navy ship maintenance applications.”

But John Kent, senior manager for media relations at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said: “I can tell you Lockheed Martin has not purchased any exoskeletons from Ekso Bionics. Fortis was independently developed by Lockheed Martin with support from Robrady Design.” Robrady Design is a “design and development studio” in Sarasota, Florida, according to a company website that does indeed tout work on the Fortis.

Each spokesperson denied the truth of the other’s statement.

Meanwhile, Ekso’s eventual marketing plan is to sell suits with arms adapted to specific tools. Wearing the exoskeleton it’s easy to imagine one with arms built to specifically carry Milwaukee or DeWalt—maybe even with batteries for power tools instead of dead metal as the counterweight. It won’t be Ripley fighting an alien queen in a loader, but maybe it’s a start.

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