The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) helps lighten the load for the human user. (UC Berkeley photo)
 The mere thought of hauling a 70-pound pack across miles of rugged terrain or up 50 flights of stairs is enough to evoke a grimace in even the burliest individuals. But breakthrough robotics research at the University of California, Berkeley, could soon bring welcome relief — a self-powered exoskeleton to effectively take the load off people’s backs.

"We set out to create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle," said Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of mechanical engineering and director of UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. "We’ve designed this system to be ergonomic, highly maneuverable and technically robust so the wearer can walk, squat, bend and swing from side to side without noticeable reductions in agility. The human pilot can also step over and under obstructions while carrying equipment and supplies."

The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX), as it’s officially called, consists of mechanical metal leg braces that are connected rigidly to the user at the feet, and, in order to prevent abrasion, more compliantly elsewhere. The device includes a power unit and a backpack-like frame used to carry a large load.

Such a machine could become an invaluable tool for anyone who needs to travel long distances by foot with a heavy load. The exoskeleton could eventually be used by army medics to carry injured soldiers off a battlefield, firefighters to haul their gear up dozens of flights of stairs to put out a high-rise blaze, or rescue workers to bring in food and first-aid supplies to areas where vehicles cannot enter.

"The fundamental technology developed here can also be developed to help people with limited muscle ability to walk optimally," said Kazerooni.

The researchers point out that the human pilot does not need a joystick, button or special keyboard to "drive" the device. Rather, the machine is designed so that the pilot becomes an integral part of the exoskeleton, thus requiring no special training to use it. In the UC Berkeley experiments, the human pilot moved about a room wearing the 100-pound exoskeleton and a 70-pound backpack while feeling as if he were lugging a mere 5 pounds.

For the current model, the user steps into a pair of modified Army boots that are then attached to the exoskeleton. A pair of metal legs frames the outside of a person’s legs to facilitate ease of movement. The wearer then dons the exoskeleton’s vest that is attached to the backpack frame and engine. If the machine runs out of fuel, the exoskeleton legs can be easily removed so that the device converts to a large backpack.

More than 40 sensors and hydraulic actuators form a local area network (LAN) for the exoskeleton and function much like a human nervous system. The sensors, including some that are embedded within the shoe pads, are constantly providing the central computer brain information so that it can adjust the load based upon what the human is doing. When it is turned on, the exoskeleton is constantly calculating what it needs to do to distribute the weight so little to no load is imposed on the wearer.

"We are taking great pains to make this as practical and robust as possible for the wearer," said Kazerooni. "Several engineers around the world are working on motorized exoskeletons that can enhance human strength, but we’ve advanced our design to the point where a ‘pilot’ could strap on the external metal frame and walk in figure eights around a room. No one else has done that."

One significant challenge for the researchers was to design a fuel-based power source and actuation system that would provide the energy needed for a long mission. The UC Berkeley researchers are using an engine that delivers hydraulic power for locomotion and electrical power for the computer. The engine provides the requisite energy needed to power the exoskeleton while affording the ease of refueling in the field.

The current prototype allows a person to travel over flat terrain and slopes, but work on the exoskeleton is ongoing, with the focus turning to miniaturization of its components. The UC Berkeley engineers are also developing a quieter, more powerful engine, and a faster, more intelligent controller, that will enable the exoskeleton to carry loads up to 120 pounds within the next six months. In addition, the researchers are studying what it takes to enable pilots to run and jump with the exoskeleton legs.

The engineers point out that while the exoskeleton does the heavy lifting, the human contributes to the balance. "The pilot is not ‘driving’ the exoskeleton," said Kazerooni. "Instead, the control algorithms in the computer are constantly calculating how to move the exoskeleton so that it moves in concert with the human."

Appropriately enough, the first step in the project began with researchers analyzing the human step. They gathered information about how people walk and move — including the propulsive force and torque needed from the ankles and the shock absorbing power of the knees — so they could adapt the exoskeleton to a wide range of natural human movements.

"Many scientists and engineers have been attempting to build a robotic strength enhancing device since the 1950s, and they’ve failed," said Kazerooni. "It is only through recent engineering breakthroughs that this dream is now becoming a reality." 

The Human Factor
Revolutionizing the Way People Live With Technology
by Kim Vicente. Routledge, 2004.

Technology pervades every aspect of American life in the 21st century, from the foods we eat to the tools we use, from the ways we communicate to the jobs we perform. Almost every problem in our lives, from the price of gas to the threat of terrorism, seems to have a technological cause and require a technological fix. 

"Over the past twenty millenia or so, humankind tried out innumerable technical innovations in an attempt to improve things," writes engineer Kim Vicente. "Bad ideas fell by the wayside because they didn't result in social progress."

It is Vicente's assertion that the technological behemoths that have so ravaged health care and the stock markets and transportation can best be controlled and comprehended through systems thinking, both on the part of the engineers who design the technologies and the people who use them. 

Strongly influenced by the work of Robert Wright and his "logic of human destiny," Vicente envisions a psycho-cultural sea change in mankind's ways of thinking about and using technology.

"In aviation and nuclear power, Human-tech revolutions are well underway and we can see why; the move makes so much sense," he writes. "It's clearly critical in terms of the safety of mass numbers of people, given the horrendous catastrophes we've experienced. The only uncertainty is when -- when we will move from a state of blindly competitive technological chaos to a new, more human equilibrium, in which the human factor is recognized as viotal and technology is adapted to people rather than the other way around."

Much like Don Norman's, The Psychology of Everyday Things, this book reassures us that many of our technological frustrations are the result of bad design and not human failing, but with ever-increasing complexity and multinational financing the suggestion that individuals can take corrective measures by purchasing wisely and being active politically seems a little thin.

The Handbook of Artificial Intelligence (3-volume set)