Need Muscle Power? This Intelligent Robot Suit Can Help

Military gear doesn’t usually scream “fashion”, but you’d be surprised how often army wear invades our lives.

In terms of style, camouflage, trooper jackets and cargo pants immediately come to mind. But that’s just scratching the surface - the military’s best contributions don’t lie in form, but in function.

Soldiers brace extreme weather conditions and prolonged periods of exertion (and not showering), and their clothes take quite the beating. To invent functional fabrics that can hold up against rough treatment, the military has heavily invested in all sorts of textile technologies.

The result? Nylon, synthetic rubber and even GORE-TEX, the breathable, water- and wind-proof fabric that’s ubiquitous these days in quality outdoor wear.

Now, we may be on the verge of adopting another piece of DARPA-funded wearable tech for the masses: flexible exoskeleton suits that hug the body like a second skin.

Meet Superflex

At the forefront of the robotic exosuit movement is a company called Superflex. A spin-off of SRI International, a research center in Menlo Park that gave us – among other things – the computer mouse and Siri, Superflex is working on a smart suit that could give anyone a boost of muscle power.

Dubbed “Aura”, the suit is made of a type of smart material that contracts like human muscles when electricity passes through. Embedded into the material is a myriad of sensors, including motion sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes. These sensors allows the suit to know how fast the wearer is moving and tracks his or her posture.

The data is then sent to a group of hexagonal pods inserted into the suit near the wearer’s thighs and upper back. These pods contain small circuit boards that rapidly process information, and send out a jolt to the suit when the wearer requires some assistance.

Because the suit is configured to align with muscles, it provides extra power to muscle groups that may be working above their load. As of now, the suit is powered by rechargeable batteries within the hexagonal pods, although later generations may have a slightly different design.

Compared to traditional heavy, rigid exoskeletons, the exosuit’s assistance feels much more natural – like someone gently pushing you up when you’re too tired to stand by yourself.

Aura was originally inspired by technology that resulted from DARPA’s Warrior Web Program, which aimed to help reduce injuries in solders carrying extra-heavy loads. Superflex’s focus, however, is on the consumer. And if fitness trackers have taught us anything, it’s that tech isn’t enough when it comes to wearables – they also have to look good.

That’s where the Aura suit really shines. Early on in the development process, Superflex hired a team of fashion designers to help out on the form-factor: less Iron Man, more Black Widow.

The result is an uber-sleek, Tron-inspired body glove that envelops the wearer’s torso like a cycling suit.

Tron-themed cycling suit. Look familiar?

Tron-themed cycling suit. Look familiar?

Although the technology can help anyone with mobility issues, Superflex has its focus on one specific community: the country’s aging population, which is expected to double in the next three decades.

The suit, which can be worn under day-to-day clothing, would replace the role of canes and walkers for the elderly. Although still in the conceptual stages, Superflex has already built a working prototype and hopes to begin shipping suits out as early as 2018.

The company is hardly the only player in “intelligent wearable strength”. Just this week, Harvard’s Wyss Institute, working with ReWalk Robotics, introduced a fabric-based wearable robot that can assist a person’s legs in their movement. They hope to target patients with movement disabilities due to stroke or other diseases that affect the brain-muscle connection. Similarly published early this week, a team of Swiss material scientists coated normal fabric with electroactive coating to make soft, wearable artificial muscles through knitting and weaving.  

There’s still a lot more work to be done to optimize the suits and make them user-friendly. We also don’t know how much they’ll cost. But who knows, if exosuits keep looking as chic as they do while maintaining functionality, they may just be coming to a runway near you.

Power is the new black.