Recent Feature Stories
Meet the Bay Area engineers who are on a mission to make soldiers into superheroes, and to help paraplegics walk.
LIKE THE mise en scène of a certain science fiction How, then, do you best equip soldiers without physically movie, Russ Angold’s workspace in a former Ford Motor plant outside of San Francisco is jam-packed with boxes of metallic body parts—knee braces, shoulder pads, hinges, socket joints—and its walls are lined with what look like metal skeletons. The company he co-founded, Ekso Bionics, is in the midst of developing for the U.S. military an “Iron Man” fighting suit that will help elite Navy SEALs carry 150 pounds of armor. But it’s not just tomorrow’s warriors that Angold and his team want to outfit. “Our goal is to advance this technology across the board for able-bodied soldiers, for industrial workers, for help- ing paralyzed people walk and even for hikers,” says the 37-year-old, who, with his thick-set, muscled physique and boyish bowl cut, comes across more plain-talking mechan- ic than engineering geek. “Ideally, you’d walk into an REI and pick one that fits you right off the wall.”
Founded nine years ago in Berkeley, California, Ekso and its 70 employees were chosen in late 2013 by the U.S. Spe- cial Operations Command (SOCOM) to lead one of three teams in a sort of military technology bake-off to develop the next-gen battle wear, officially known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS. The competing teams, including Revision Military in Vermont, a maker of ballistic headgear, and Mawashi Protective Clothing in Canada, which designs its products by studying hard- shelled animals like lobsters and armadillos, are trying to solve a vexing problem. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have seen the loads soldiers carry—armor, weapons, elec- tronics and helmets—weigh in at as much as 140 pounds. exhausting them?
Angold and his team are uniquely positioned to solve that problem. A therapeutic version of Ekso’s suit is al- ready being used in more than 60 rehab centers around the world, helping paraplegics walk. In fact, as early as 2004, Angold and fellow engineers Nathan Harding, a soft-spoken Texan who grew up fixing cars, and Professor Homayoon Kazerooni, a wearable robotics pioneer—all members of the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at UC Berkeley—had begun work on a primarily aluminum exoskeleton for the Defense Department that was unteth- ered to a power source. (In 2005, Harding and Kazerooni would join Angold in founding Ekso.)
Says Angold, “It was amazing technology—six actuators, fully hydraulic, self-contained—but had this awful down- side.” Namely, the power source was an engine similar to that of a lawnmower, strapped to the user’s back. When An- gold showed the suit to his brother, a former Navy SEAL, his brother laughed: “He was like, ‘You know we’re not gonna use this. It’s too heavy and noisy and slow. It’s a non- starter for the military.’” With that in mind, Angold says, “We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got to change the paradigm here.’”
Angold took his inspiration from prosthesis mechanics. An artificial knee, he realized, doesn’t use energy when standing still, so why were they wasting power on it? They could build an “exo” that supported its weight passively, and only required power for real work, like walking. “We took it down [from 5,000 watts] to five watts,” he says, replacing the lawnmower-esque engine with rechargeable batteries and a solar panel, all the size of a suitcase, and named it ExoHiker.
Around the same time, Angold’s brother broke his neck and became partially paralyzed, mostly affecting his arms. The episode set Angold thinking about spinal- cord recoveries. “How do you get the mechanics back if you can’t move?” he muses. “It’s an odd problem.” Until then, therapists helping the paralyzed to walk again em- ployed an ungainly contraption known as a reciprocating gait orthosis. It allows a patient to take painstaking steps by swinging his torso from side to side, exhausting him after about 10 yards. Angold and his team eventually de- signed a 48-pound titanium and aluminum suit that uses sensors and computers to balance the walker while employing tiny electric motors to fire in sync with steps. They shipped their first commercial Ekso, as they call it, in 2012. Since then, they have sold 79 of the costly devices (from $110,000 apiece) in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Mexico and South Africa. Angold says that 3,000 or more users have so far taken a total of 11 million steps using the suits.
Other offshoot projects also are in the works. Over the past few years, Angold’s company has been partnering with contractor Lockheed Martin on a 53-pound titanium exoskeleton. Called the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), it’s bulkier than the Hiker. But what it lacks in agility, it makes up for in strength, allowing soldiers to carry 200-pound loads for long distances and over rough terrain. Though it’s yet to be deployed, its likely use is for unloading heavy equipment at forward operating bases where forklifts and trucks can’t maneuver.
SOCOM wanted something more agile for TALOS, something a SEAL Team Six operator could wear into a firefight, or when busting through a terrorist compound. The three suits Ekso delivered this past summer to a ware- house near SOCOM’s Tampa headquarters are prototypes of the first functional suits, expected in 2018. They may eventually contain heating, cooling and oxygen units; com- puters to monitor vital signs; wound stasis to heal injuries; heads-up displays for receiving intel on the enemy; and full-body ballistics, much as the Iron Man of comic books. “One thing we do know,” says Michael Fieldson, SOCOM’s project manager for TALOS. “It’s not going to fly. Every- thing else is on the table. For now, it’s a lot like going from the horse to the Model T. These suits are the Model Ts.”
The final Iron Man suits could weigh as much as 400 pounds each, says Angold. The challenge is powering them, just as it was for the fictional defense contractor and Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark, who came up with the Arc Reactor, a high-yield device that screws into his chest. And although Ekso has been able to figure out how to power a suit for a day us- ing batteries, that’s a far cry from the 72-hour mission the military wants. “At the end of the day,” says Angold, “the solution will be some sort of hybrid engine that can use liq- uid high-energy-density fuel coupled with batteries.”
Over the next several months, SOCOM will be busy testing the three teams’ suits, with the help of three Special Operations Forces members who were embed- ded with the teams during the design phase and whose bodies were scanned to create suits that fit them precisely. Fieldson, whose command has spent about $10 million so far on development, says, “We’ll be testing all these suits and looking to use all the best elements.”
In the meantime, Angold and his team at Ekso are focusing on commercial uses for the technology. In ad- dition to being the market leader in the medical field for exoskeletons, they’re planning for a day when exos will be worn by firefighters, construction and oil-rig workers, Hollywood cameramen, high-rise ironworkers, backwoods hikers and sherpas lugging supplies up Mt. Everest. An- gold says this commercial market could prove bigger than both the military and medical markets combined, particu- larly as the price comes down, as he hopes it will, through increased manufacturing and its economies of scale.
“At first this stuff seemed like science fiction, even to us,” says Angold. Ironically, it was the popular Iron Man movies themselves that helped the public think of these wearable robots “as inevitable,” he continues. “It’s going to happen. We joke and say it will be like picking out jeans. But we really believe that.”
Kevin Gray is a magazine writer who covers business, crime, politics, culture and celebrity. He has written for New York, The New York Times Magazine, People, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Men’s Journal and USA Today.