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U researchers develop Iron Man suit

By Jaime Winston

When Iron Man comic book hero Tony Stark was kidnapped by terrorists and forced to build a weapon of mass destruction, he instead created a mechanical suit that gave him incomparable strength and the ability to fly.

Now U researchers have built a suit that will protect soldiers in combat by giving them increased strength and endurance.

“It’s the same thing, but we don’t quite have the glowing light thing in the chest or (the ability to) knock airplanes out of the sky,” Jacobsen said. The suit will instead be used to reduce troop sizes and prevent casualties.

Stephen Jacobsen managed to create a prosthetic arm with a team of mechanical engineers at the U in 1983, and has finished constructing the full exoskeleton suit.

The suit, which moves when muscles interact with built-in electrodes, could replace a group of people engaged in tasks such as carrying water or supplies.

“What you want to do is reduce the number of people in combat,” Jacobsen said. “You can have less people out there and be more agile.”

The original prosthetic arm has been fitted for injured Iraq War veterans since it was first built.

Jacobsen and his team at Raytheon Sarcos, a technological facility in the U’s Research Park, finished the first version of the suit a year ago. The person wearing the suit holds handles that signal the direction of his or her movements.

“It’s like a big power device,” Jacobsen said. “You put it on and it basically senses where you want to move and it moves there.” He refers to the technology it uses as “get out of the way control,” similar to power steering on a car.

The army will begin evaluating the second version when it comes out a year from now. The third version, which will be released in two years, will focus on specific applications like transporting material.

Raytheon Sarcos personnel would not reveal the cost of the project, but according to an article in Popular Science the exoskeleton is a part of a seven-year, $75-million program supported by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency for the Department of Defense.

If it’s a success, it won’t only be used by the military, Jacobsen said. He envisions the exoskeleton being used in hospitals, safely carrying patients and helping those who are paralyzed. It could also one day be used in firefighting and construction.

U researchers and interns in biomechanics, kinematics, computer science and engineering contributed to the project.

Former U student Wayco Scroggin, director of manufacturing for the exoskeleton, said the suit isn’t difficult to operate.

“When we put people in it, in five or six seconds they know how to run it,” he said. “We have yet to find very many things we ask it to do and it won’t.”

Jacobsen was the first person to wear the suit.

Current versions of the suit allow the operator to walk comfortably at 3.5 mph and run at 5.5 mph while carrying 150 lbs. The upper portion of the exoskeleton allows 40 lbs. to be held with a fully extended arm indefinitely.

Marc Olivier, core investigator for the project, was one of the first to use the exoskeleton. “There’s never a dull moment, you don’t have time to get bored,” said Olivier, who has been working on the project for about seven years.

Olivier said his main focus is on the power and control of the exoskeleton.

The machine is powered using a large electric cable attached to a land based power supply.

Olivier hopes to develop and attach a power pack to the back of the exoskeleton for long range use.

The idea for an exoskeleton has been around a long time, but the Raytheon Sarcos used miniaturized circuitries to make the suit more manageable, Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen and his team are working on the next version of the suit, which is aimed at reducing power consumption and hardening it against environmental factors.

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An exoskeleton helps in the lifting of 72-pound ammo cans during a demonstration held by Raytheon Sarcos.

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