In pursuit of the perfect power suit

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Science  16 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6258, pp. 270-273
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6258.270

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Military leaders seeking to give soldiers more strength, stamina, and protection have long dreamed of something similar to Marvel Comics' Iron Man, whose powers came from a robotic suit. Imagining Iron Man, however, has proved easier than building him. The history of efforts to build exoskeletons that endow people with superhuman strength and endurance is littered with failures. The rigid, heavy devices often exhausted users instead of supercharging them. As a result, some researchers are now taking a softer, smaller approach, building suits that resemble running tights hooked to motorized wires, or a modest ankle brace. In just the last few years, they've finally achieved a long-sought goal: creating an exoskeleton that actually saves the user energy while walking on a level treadmill. Such advances are raising hopes that machinery and microprocessors can truly augment a healthy human. "I think we're in the stage where the Wright brothers can get the plane up for a bit, but it doesn't stay up for long," says Dan Ferris, a leading exoskeleton scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

  • * Warren Cornwall is a freelance writer in Bellingham, Washington.