The Mechs Are Coming
The concept of Mechs, giant, man-carrying robot suits, has been around for decades, but now researchers are in the development stages of making this a reality.
Activelink, a company that develops new ways to link people and machines by using Power assist technology, has produced a prototype exoskeleton called the Assist Suit AWN-03, which is being developed as a solution to labor shortages that might arise due to an ageing population, since hoists and forklifts are not suitable for every situation.
“There are some particular fields that cannot be mechanized, and industrial workers will still need to carry heavy objects by themselves,” said ActiveLink’s president, Hiromichi Fujimoto.
This concept hit the mainstream in the 1980’s, after Jordan Weisman of Harebrained Schemes first created the mech-themed BattleTech games. Jordan envisioned mechs built from a steel frame surrounded by electrically charged artificial muscles that would move the joints, together with a gyroscope stabilizer and on-board power plant.
Weisman said the artificial muscles he imagined are a lot like electroactive polymers. “These electrical bundles, which would expand or contract, based upon the electricity being provided to them, were the muscles of our mechs.” This is the same material now being used in the development of prosthetic limbs.”
Now, other researchers from around the world are weighing in on the best approaches to see these mechs come to life.
Professor Sethu Vijayakumar of the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics suggests a combination of tele-operations, like those used on the “power loader” in the film Aliens, with automatic systems reacting to the pilot’s intentions stating “There will be high-level intentions coming from the operator, but a lot of the low-level control will be built into the platform, such as maintaining stability when walking.”
Vijayakumar also points out that having a human-piloted bipedal mech is more likely than one that thinks for itself, and said “This is a very feasible type of technology. More feasible than a fully autonomous system, because fully autonomous systems have lots of problems in terms of sensing and contextual decision-making.”
Rob Buckingham, the director of the Remote Applications in Challenging Environments, at the Culham Science Centre added “The human anatomy is incredibly efficient for clambering over rocks and walking along roads. Just look at a soldier who is able to carry several times his own body weight over any terrain.”
Once production is complete, research will move on to phase two of the Assist Suit, which will be reducing weight and production costs, before looking at developing a model for heavier work. The new Assist Suit will be able to lift objects that a person could not otherwise lift by themselves.
Vijayakumar concludes by saying “In some respects, we already have the technology. We will get humanoid mechs, but only if we find an application. It is only science-fiction writers who care whether it has two legs and two arms.”