Once scalable, robotic suits will help workers everywhere get the job done
Workers engaged in manual labor demand a lot of their bodies. For 40 hours a week or more, year-round, they’re performing repetitive tasks with heavy lifting. The strain it puts on muscles and joints leads to chronic pain and millions in medical costs. It’s enough to make workers wish for a whole new body. While that’s not exactly possible, the next best thing might be readily available soon. You used to have to be born an arthropod or as rich as Tony Stark to have one, but exoskeletons might be commercially scalable to ease the burden of work in the next few years.
Today, the average cost is around $45,000, but ask Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of SuitX, and he’ll tell you that the time is soon coming when you can pick up exoskeletons at the local hardware store. “As the prices come down, you’ll be able to simply buy them at Home Depot,” he told the BBC.
SuitX makes occupational exoskeletons for industrial work that support shoulders, backs, and legs. BY redistributing loads and taking some of the weight off the human body, they reduce muscle strain and with it the long-term risk of injury from arduous tasks. In the healthcare field, its ShieldX reduces strain from heavy radiation aprons doctors, nurses, and technicians often wear when working with X-rays. The standard lead aprons are burdensome and really weigh down the upper body. ShieldX transfers the weight from the shoulders to the hips and buttocks. On the patient side, Phoenix is a 27-pound exoskeleton that helps users stand and walk more easily, improving mobility for patients suffering from a host of maladies.
With e-commerce booming, there’s an awful lot of big boxes to move around in a short amount of time to ensure the speedy delivery customers are now demanding. While we might be lulled into thinking they just magically arrive on our doorstep the day after we hit the special button, there are people out there doing the heavy lifting. For its freight handling, Delta Airlines has been testing out Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO. The battery-powered full-body exoskeletons allow freight handlers to lift and transfer hefty loads for hours at increased productivity without fatigue or injury.
Of course, the downside to this performance-measuring technology is the potential for abuse by corporations focused solely on increased productivity and forgetting there are people inside the exoskeletons.
“Problems, however, arise if robotics also double as workplace surveillance,” Oxford University senior research fellow in AI Sandra Wachter told the BBC. “Are these suits tracking your movements, how fast you move, and how often you take breaks? Does a system compare this data with those of other workers to score or rank them? What happens if you move slower than others, or take breaks more often?”
As long as exoskeletons are making workers’ lives easier, not harder, they’ll be a welcome addition.