How Exoskeletons are Changing Robotics in Construction
The robotic invention of exoskeletons is here to stay. It’s taken a few decades to get to this point, but the introduction of these powerful machines into the industry in a more streamlined and acceptable way marks another major shift for the future of construction. Most of it good, some of it great, and all of it really cool.
What Is An Exoskeleton?
An exoskeleton is a motorized machine usually made from metal that is built to fit on a person’s body. The machine is created to multiply the strength of its wearer and facilitate proper body mechanics. It makes it easier to lift objects and ease strain on the body.
Exoskeletons can be full bodysuits, or be created to only be worn on specific parts of the body, like hands or shoulders.
Why is an Exoskeleton Called an Exoskeleton?
An exoskeleton has its name because it is built to mirror the makeup of the human body and internal skeletal structure. It is like a metal skeletal system that is worn on the outside of a person’s body.
Why Do People Wear Exoskeletons?
Exoskeletons are worn to reduce the stress put on the body by performing certain tasks. Originally, exoskeletons were used in the medical field to assist in rehabilitation. More recently, they have been used in labour-intensive fields like construction and manufacturing to reduce injury rates, assist in lifting and moving heavy objects, and provide a strong support system for handling large machines and objects.
The History of the Exoskeleton
The very first case of a wearable machine dates back over 100 years. In 1917 Leslie C. Kelley invented a running machine powered by a small steam engine. The machine was created with the goal of easing the stress put on the body throughout the movement of running. It was called a “Pedomotor”.
The machine was patented, but nothing else came from it.
General Electric’s Take on Exoskeletons
Almost 50 years later General Electric created the Hardiman. This machine was the product of a collaboration between the Army-Navy and GE in the year of 1965. The goal of this machine was to allow humans to lift 25X more weight than possible without it. Ultimately, people were supposed to be able to lift over 1,500 lbs all on their own.
Image borrowed from GE.
The issue with the Hardiman is that the machine itself weighed 1,500 lbs. Also, the machine was reported to allow the controller to walk at a pace of 2.5 feet per second. This speed of under 2 MPH is about the same land speed as a turtle.
The machine also was reported to seize up when the legs were engaged, limiting its movement even more. Safe to say, the Hardiman never made it past its trial period and the project ended six years later.
How The Medical Industry Adapted the Exoskeleton
Only a few years later, a functional exoskeleton was created and used at an orthopedic rehabilitation center in Belgrade. The medical application of this machine design really drove this project into the future.
Previously targeted at full-body strengthening, the medical use of the machine allowed inventors and engineers to develop more specific machine types that could function at a lower, more practical level for the times.
The Life Suit
In 1986 a soldier who was injured jumping out of a parachute created an exoskeleton. This Life Suit was developed with the goal in mind to allow him to walk again.19 years later, he wore the 12th prototype of the machine in a Seattle race in. His name was Monty Reed.
Reed created the non-profit They Shall Walk to specifically support the creation of his Life Suit. The non-profit is a medical research corporation in the state of Washington that wants to give the gift of walking and to help raise awareness of paralyzed and other persons with disabilities. He wanted to improve their quality of life through technology, much like how his life suit gave him back a piece of himself.
Medical Uses of the Exoskeleton
Today there are specific companies that lean on exoskeletons for rehabilitation and other medical uses. Lokon is one company that uses the power of these machines to help patients with neurological damage learn how to move and walk again.
The use of exoskeletons in rehabilitation is also beneficial for the therapists as it eases their own strain in supporting, moving, and working with patients. Instead, the exoskeletal machine can take on a large portion of the strain and effort.
The Two Types of Exoskeletons
Although the first Pedometer was powered by a small engine – as were many other prototypes after it – there is another variety of exoskeleton in use today. Those that are powered by a motor, and those that are not. They refer to them as active (motorized) and passive exoskeletons.
Ekso Bionics is leading the creation of passive suits through their EksoWorks division. Their machines use counterweights and building technology to develop a suit that helps workers lift and move heavy objects without needing to refuel or charge it up. It’s like the power of Iron Man, without the need of an Arc Reactor.
Using Exoskeletons in the Construction Industry
According to the 2019 Q4 USG + U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index 33% of contractors are expecting to use wearable technology by 2022. In 2019, only 6% of contractors were using wearable technology on site. That is a huge jump in just 3 years.
Exoskeletons didn’t really enter the labour industry until 2015. Considering how recient it was, this 33% prediction is a huge jump. The popularity of the machines speaks to the changes currently happening in the construction industry as a whole.
Innovation. Technology. Safety. Efficiency.
These buzzwords have been leading the industry transformation driving construction forward faster than ever. Unlike other advancements like autonomous equipment, BIM, drones or fleet management systems (just to name a few), exoskeletons are a wearable technology that could make workers safer, improve careers, and make employee management more efficient.
How Do Exoskeletons Make Construction Workers Safer?
Exoskeletons help to make construction workers safer by reducing the strain often put on joints and muscles through repetitive work and prolonged tasks. This is because the skeleton makes heavy machines and objects lighter to move, assists in the carrying and lifting, and reduces the impact of holding heavy machines for long periods of time.
These injuries – strain from repetitive movement and exposure to constant force, vibration, awkward positioning and movement – are referred to as Musculoskeletal Disorders.
Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Construction Industry
Musculoskeletal disorder is a medical term that includes injuries in the muscular and skeletal systems of the body. These include injuries in joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons, and support systems of the limbs, back, and neck.
According to the Center for Construction Research & Training, the number of these kinds of injuries has gone down in recent years. However, injuries from overexertion in construction are still higher than in any other industry. These injuries are said to be one of the leading causes of non-fatal injuries in construction.
A CPI Business study from 2016 found that sprains, strains and tear injuries caused by overexertion resulted in the equivalent of over 4,000,000 lost workdays. In terms of monetary value, overexertion costs around $15 billion every year in compensation alone. The impact that these injuries have on industry efficiency and employee health should be taken seriously. Especially because these kinds of injuries can be prevented and avoided.
The added danger with these injuries is the impact it could have on an ageing workforce. The average age of a construction worker is 41. With a labor shortage looming, the need to support current employees to have a safe and healthy career that is injury-free is more important than ever.
How Exoskeletons Are Being Used
Even if half of all overexertion and strain injuries could be mitigated through wearable technology, it would be a huge improvement. Reducing the impact of the daily jobs of workers could create a more healthy, vibrant, and resilient workforce.
There are so many different kinds of exoskeletons being used today.
Power Gloves are used to aid in the grasping and holding of materials and tools. These machines help to strengthen grip and improve the dexterity of its wearer.
Back Support exoskeletons are vital for lifting, bending, and reaching. Back strain and injury are some of the most common areas for strain and injury. Supporting back health inadvertently supports healthy arms, neck, and leg muscles. These machines help to ensure proper posture and reduce backpressure while performing tasks.
Arm and Shoulder Support is helpful for those contractors who do a lot of overhead work. Electricians, drywallers, and professionals working on ceilings could find a lot of benefits from these machines. These exoskeletons work by distributing the weight from shoulders and arms to reduce the strain put on these muscle groups.
Crouching and Standing exoskeletons can provide much-needed support for those who stand for most of their day. Installing drywall, drilling, or brickwork are a few examples of jobs where this particular form of exoskeleton could be helpful.
Finally, there is the full-body exoskeleton. Lifting, moving objects, carrying tools around site, and performing other tasks can be facilitated with this form of an exoskeleton.
Image borrowed from Car and Bike.
Aside from these examples, there are also other kinds of exoskeleton-like machines that are used on site. Arms that act as a support system for tools are another example of how these groundbreaking inventions can assist contractors every day, no matter their job.
What Could Be Next?
Exoskeletons could be the start of accepting robots on site. You could say that autonomous equipment and drones are already a form of robots on site. However, exoskeletons could pave the way for another whole form of robots technology to enter the construction industry.
Robots In the Construction Industry
Boston Dynamics is a robotic company that creates moving robots that are capable of all different kinds of independent abilities. SPOT is their dog-like robot that has features that make it beneficial on a construction site. This robot has a 360-degree field of view, is crash-proof, can travel through rough terrain, and is resistant to wind, rain, and to cold temperatures. This robot has been equipped with the ability to inspect progress on site, to compare BIM projections to current building aspects, and can be remotely controlled.
This robot could be tasked with carrying around your tools, opening doors while you carry materials around site, or remotely monitor your work and alert a manager if an accident occurs. The possibilities are truly endless.
Robots could eventually be the key to really addressing the labor gap facing the market. Current employees could be trained to fill skill gaps, while tasks such as drilling and drywalling could be given to a programmable robotic machine, much like a bricklaying machine.
Opening The Door To The Future
Exoskeletons offer a way to make the industry safer for contractors. Their introduction into the industry took decades. It’s clear, however, now that the industry has its hands on this technology, construction will run with it.
Exoskeletons are here to stay and they could be signaling a future of robotics in construction.