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‘I am Iron Man’
Tony Stark created a powered, weaponised exoskeleton to defend himself from death. This sparked an enterprise that spanned a decade of filmmaking. The Iron Man suit began as a personal defence project, transformed into a national defence initiative, then scaled up to a global defence mechanism and culminated in a cosmic armour.
Stark is a futurist, but more importantly, he’s a hero. He takes personal responsibility for his past mistakes and consequently assumes collective responsibility for potential future perils.
Therefore, Iron Man represents the positive aspect of our technological power. Initially, he profited off his weapons at the expense of war. His genius was limited by his morality.
Now, Iron Man is a mythological representation of the best a genius-level engineer can offer; a profoundly virtuous futurist. In this series of features, I am going to pay homage to this character by examining the best technology created by gifted engineers.
The Iron Man Suit
The Iron Man suit is a weaponised, powered exoskeleton. Its fantastic origins lie outside the domain of reality. However, its realistic applications are touched upon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For instance, in Iron Man 2, the US government wishes to nationalise the Iron Man suit for public defence. Later, in Captain America: Civil War, the character of War Machine, another suit user, is paralysed. He then utilises similar technology, in addition to an Iron Man suit, to continue walking.
These are more realistic applications of the Iron Man suit; military and medical usage; national defence and physical enhancement. Allowing individuals to transcend their physical limitations and become heroes. This field of inquiry is known as bionics.
Bionics, or biologically inspired engineering, is using biological methods and systems found in nature to design engineering systems and modern technology.
Esko Bionics is a company that develops and manufactures powered exoskeleton bionic devices that can be strapped on as wearable robots to enhance the strength, mobility, and endurance of soldiers and paraplegics.
The company was founded in 2005 by engineers at the University of California. Its founder is Homayoon Kazerooni, a roboticist and professor of mechanical engineering. Kazerooni’s interest is designing exoskeletons specific to lower human extremities.
Esko Bionics’ first breakthrough was the Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC.
The HULC is made with titanium. It is un-tethered and flexible, allowing the user to squat, crawl and lift. It weighs 53 pounds without batteries. The suit is smart and doesn’t require any external control mechanism.
Rather, it has an inbuilt micro-computer that senses the user’s requirements and adapts to the situation accordingly. The user can remove and pack-up the suit in 30 seconds. Additionally, they can swap out modular features to fit their needs.
These features include armour, heating, cooling systems and sensors. Lithium polymer batteries provide eight hours of active battery life. A solar powered charger attachment makes the suit self-sustainable. A power-saving mode prevents premature suit failure. Actuators absorb heat, eliminating the need for fans and making the suit stealthy.
Importantly, it incorporates the features of two independent exoskeleton systems; ExoHiker and ExoClimber.
The ExoHiker feature provides strength augmentation. It allows the HULC to carry heavy loads of up to 200 pounds, or 91 kilograms. The exoskeleton’s shoes transfer the weight of the load onto the ground, rather than onto the wearer.
This augmentation prevents soldiers from developing musculoskeletal injuries when carrying heavy loads. It also ensures that the excess weight doesn’t hamper the soldier’s movement. Those out on the front lines become physically extraordinary.
The ExoClimber feature provides endurance augmentation. It reduces the metabolic cost of the user. The metabolic cost is how much oxygen an individual expends during movement. Therefore, this cost reduction prevents premature fatigue
A soldier is walking at a speed of 2kmph. They’re carrying 81 pounds of essential equipment. The HULC decreases their oxygen consumption by 15%. This may be the extra breath they need to navigate a combat situation and save lives.
If the situation becomes dangerous, the HULC could be essential in saving the soldier’s life. When escaping a conflict, the soldier can run at a maximum speed of 11kmph for long durations and at 16kmph during burst speeds. This is essential when the terrain is difficult to navigate.
Ekso Bionic Suit
Ekso Bionics have also developed a bionic suit, simply called Ekso, that enables paralysed individuals to walk. The exoskeleton’s motors power the legs, replacing neuromuscular function.
The Variable Assist feature allows users, regardless of their lower body strength, to walk using whatever power remains in their legs. Therefore, therapists can utilise the Esko to fine-tune treatments depending on the severity of the paralysis.
Relearning how to walk is extremely difficult. The Variable Assist feature provides physiotherapists with more treatment options and enables patients to increase their step count during therapy. This enhances the effects of the rehabilitation.
Therapists can alter power contributions to push their patients towards higher step goals. The Esko also has an autopilot function, allowing the suit to adjust in real-time to the specific needs of the patient.
“Since we delivered the first device to Craig Hospital last year, Ekso has helped over one thousand individuals take over three million steps that would not have otherwise been possible,” said Nathan Harding, co-founder and CEO of Ekso Bionics.
This type of technology is at the heart of Tony Stark and futurism. It’s not just the fantastical, badass, flying suit used to battle aliens and robots, it’s creating technology that will further mankind and widen our humanity.
The 20th century had many lessons to teach us, one being the unlimited destructive capability of mankind’s ingenuity. The nuclear bomb represents what is possible when technological power isn’t tempered with moral virtue.
Tony Stark, the futurist, transcended his amorality and created fantastic technology that saved the world. The futurist is the heroic engineer, such as Homayoon Kazerooni and the other excellent engineers working at Esko Bionics, who enriched the efforts of soldiers and lifted people out of paralysis.
These are the lessons we can learn from the 21st Century. These are our futurists.