While audiences flood theaters this month to see the comic-book-inspired Iron Man, a real-life mad genius toils in a secret mountain lab to make the mechanical superhuman more than just a fantasy with the XOS Exoskeleton
Posted 04.09.2008 at 11:11 am
Meet the Robot Maker
Beyond: Raytheon Sarcos XOS: The most advanced real-world exoskeleton yet, the XOS, grants its wearer extraordinary strength and endurance.
To read more about the development of the XOS,
read our feature article here. John B. Carnett
Steve Jacobsen's résumé makes him seem like the Willy Wonka of robotics—his projects over the past 35 years have spanned an 80-ton mechanized dinosaur and the Bellagio casino's fountains. But he looks more professor than madman, tall with a board-straight back and perfectly groomed gray-white hair. Before introducing the XOS, he leads me on a tour of what he only half-jokingly calls his "tunnel of terror." It could pass for a dentist's office from the outside, but the cavernous space is the headquarters of the company he founded as an R&D arm of the University of Utah's college of engineering, where he taught at the time. Although he's built robots for some notoriously tough customers—he hints that Disney is just as demanding as the military—he's still an academic at heart. He refers to his brain as a friend he likes to go off and spend time with, and he seems to care more about solving hard problems than about the solution's ultimate application. After skipping right past a Ping-Pong-playing humanoid 'bot, he lingers in front of a pair of singing, mechanical toucans he built for a local restaurant, marveling at how difficult it was to make them move like real birds. "We just do things we want to do because they're interesting," he says.
He talks in five-minute-long bursts on topics that range from expressions of wonder at the energy efficiency of biological systems ("Humans run on carrots!") to reflections on engineering to starry-eyed platitudes ("Some things have to be believed to be seen"). But his chattiness belies a penchant for secrecy. He rarely talks to the press. He won't tell me his age. As we walk though various labs, he'll point to a device—a miniature unmanned ground vehicle, a new design for an exoskeleton leg—launch into an excited explantion, and then stop and ask me not to mention it. His reticence stems in part from the fact that several of his projects are military-funded. But there's also a hint of the magician who's not keen to reveal too many of his tricks.
The mix of Sarcos's projects, which also include prosthetics and nanoscale motors, seems random. But Ephrahim Garcia says this versatility is part of what made Jacobsen uniquely suited to the exoskeleton challenge. He had proven skills in software and mechanical engineering, but he also had the unique ability to simply invent what he needed. "He can design the actuators. He can design the control system. He can design the machine and its components," Garcia says. That kind of range was absolutely required.
How to Lift 200 Pounds Like It Was 2: The XOS works similar to a human appendage. When we perform a bicep curl, the muscle fibers in our upper arm contract, pulling on tendons that lift our forearm. In the XOS, a sensor in the handle detects a force as the operator moves his arm. The sensor’s data goes to the computer, which calculates how to move the exoskeleton to minimize the strain on the user’s hand. These instructions go to a series of valves that control the flow of high-pressure hydraulic fluid to cylinder actuators in the joints. The fluid moves the cylinders, which move the cables attached to them, acting as tendons and pulling on the robotic limbs. The XOS has 30 actuators, each controlling a different joint.
"When you build something like an exoskeleton," Jacobsen says, "there are about 25 subsystems, and they all have to work before you can go on to the next step. The two main objectives are strength and endurance, but it's got to do 75 different things well." Of all his robots, the XOS, because of the host of problems it presented, is clearly his favorite son. "None of them had a target like this. None of them had to have a self-contained system that has such strength, speed, endurance, flexibility."
Check out video of the XOS in action here, and for a brief photo history of the man-made exoskeleton, see our gallery here. Continue reading this feature below.