SuperFlex’s lightweight exosuit will put a spring in your step
The SuperFlex’s robotic muscles could help the less athletic to jump, or those with knee injuries to run.
Read my latest piece for Wired (UK) which was in the May edition of the magazine in full below or the original here. Scroll to the bottom to see Richard Mahoney. its creator, talk about his invention.
Don’t call it an exoskeleton. This is the SuperFlex, a lightweight “exosuit” that delivers 200 times more power than its weight – far beyond the capacity of most humans.
Originally developed for DARPA’s Warrior Web programme to help US soldiers carry heavy loads over long distances, SuperFlex is made from a soft flexigrip material that keeps the external robotic muscles, sensors, processors and batteries in place, while distributing their weight across the body’s soft tissue.
The robotic muscles work alongside the body’s knee, calf and – in future iterations – back muscles to reduce the amount of work they need to do or to increase their strength. Its thin and flexible electroactive polymers mimic human muscles by expanding when exposed to an electric current and contracting when it is removed. This means that its batteries last longer or can be smaller.
But don’t confuse the soft SuperFlex with the more rigid exoskeleton. “Is an exosuit better than an exoskeleton? Is a bike better than a car? What is vital is the application,” says SuperFlex CEO Rich Mahoney. “If somebody just needs 25 per cent more energy they don’t need an exoskeleton.”
Mahoney previously worked as executive director of the robotics programme at SRI International, which developed Siri and the computer mouse. SuperFlex, an SRI spin-off, hopes to start rolling out its products later in 2016. As well as assisting the elderly and people recovering from injury, Mahoney says the suit could help children with disabilities: he is working on a suit for children with muscular dystrophy.
The Warrior Web programme is ongoing. “There will be applications for this tech that we haven’t even thought of yet,” says Mahoney. “It’s going to be big.”