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Man & machine, interfaced.

News of autonomous robots somewhat overshadowed this item--last November, UC Berkeley's Human Engineering and Robotics Laboratory successfully demonstrated a mechanical exoskeleton in which a wearer could carry a heavy load, while subjectively feeling the added weight of a few pounds. The primary objective of the DARPA-funded BLEEX project was to create a self-powered exoskeleton for strength and endurance enhancement of humans that is ergonomic, highly maneuverable, mechanically robust, lightweight and durable. The system could provide soldiers, disaster relief workers, wildfire fighters, and other emergency personnel the ability to carry major loads such as food, rescue equipment, first-aid supplies, communications gear and weaponry with minimal effort over any type of terrain for extended periods of time. The first experimental prototype has two powered anthropomorphic legs, a power unit, and a backpack-like frame on which a variety of loads can be mounted. The device connects rigidly at the foot, and more compliantly elsewhere in order to prevent abrasion, allowing the wearer to squat, bend, swing from side to side, twist, walk and run comfortably on ascending and descending slopes, and step over and under obstructions while carrying equipment and supplies. In order to address issues of field robustness and reliability, the system is designed such that, should the device lose power, the exoskeleton legs can be removed, thereby turning the machine into just a standard backpack. Based on measurements from the exoskeleton only, the controller estimates how to move to reduce perceptible forces on the wearer, and is an effective method for determining locomotion when the area of contact between the wearer and the machine is unpredictable. The control code resides on a body LAN. The electronics platform uses a high-speed synchronous network topology in three rings, with several electronic modules communicating with several sensors and actuators in close proximity. The third ring can either interface with a GUI for debugging and data acquisition, or accommodate other electronic and communication gear not related to the exoskeleton, but which the pilot must carry. Clinical Gait Analysis of human perambulation was used as the primary basis for the physical requirements of the exoskeleton. The researchers have also identified the "worst case" mobility requirements, including payload specifications, necessary speed and terrain parameters. A small, field re-fuelable hybrid power source delivers hydraulic power for locomotion and electrical power for the exoskeleton computer.

A 28 MB video of BLEEX can be viewed at
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Title Annotation:Technology Spotlight
Author:Mandel, Richard
Date:May 1, 2004
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