Researchers Create Exoskeleton “Muscle Suit” To Help Lift Heavy Loads

Need help lifting that?

Innovators at Japan’s Tokyo University of Science are developing a so-called “muscle suit”: an exoskeleton to help with heavy lifting and other movement.

The New Scientist’s Rob Gilhooly tried the muscle suit prototype on for size:

[Research student Hideyuki] Umehara places the bag of rice onto my outstretched arms. Then he presses a switch on the rucksack-like jacket I’m wearing, my hips are propelled forward and gradually my legs straighten until I’m completely upright.

It takes a second to register, but the 40 kg of rice I just picked up like a human forklift truck suddenly seem as light as a feather. Thanks to the “muscle suit” Umehara slipped onto my back prior to the exercise, I feel completely empowered.

This isn’t the first “muscle suit” project to attract popular notice. In the 1960s, engineers at Cornell University and General Electric, respectively, worked on projects called the “man amplifier”  and the Hardiman I, but they didn’t make it past the lab.  The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has similar technology in development, intended to help soldiers carry heavy loads. What makes the Japanese model different from its predecessors is its weight: It is much lighter than previous versions of the technology. Furthermore, Hiroshi Kobayashi, who leads the exoskeleton development team, tells Gilhooly that the controls are simple to use and “are largely preprogrammed to mimic natural human movements,” Gilhooly writes.

The Tokyo University of Science hopes to bring the product to market soon. The suit will come in two models: a larger one for heavy-duty lifting and movement and a smaller, lighter version intended for caretakers of the elderly.