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Nathan Poon, a UC Berkeley graduate student and developer of the BackX module of the SuitX strength-augmentation suit

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Bad back begone!

A startup called SuitX has begun selling exoskeletal outfits that give a boost to your back, legs and shoulders. It's not going to fulfill any adolescent fantasies of hulking mecha suits, but it is enough to help people hefting boxes and spending hours bent over on a manufacturing line, said Michael McKinley, vice president of engineering and a company co-founder.

The SuitX "industrial exoskeleton" comes in three modules: the $5,000 LegX for boosting leg strength, the $4,000 BackX for helping people lift heavy items and the $4,000 ShoulderX to reduce arm fatigue from working on something above your head. The modules use springs and clutches to provide the boost, and the LegX gets a battery boost as well, said Nathan Poon, a University of California graduate student who's already working full-time for SuitX.

McKinley, clomping around the TechCrunch robotics conference in the 10-pound leg suit on Friday, bent his knees and the LegX module stiffened with a click.

Michael McKinley, SuitX co-founder and engineering vice president.

Michael McKinley, SuitX co-founder and engineering vice president.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"I could squat for hours," McKinley said, imitating a shipyard worker installing an awkwardly low wiring harness and then a concrete worker smoothing a new poured driveway. "I'm sitting in that harness."

It's an interesting example of how technology is boosting human power. Although many people worry about robots replacing human workers, SuitX technology is more likely to delay that day.

The SuitX designers hail from Berkeley's mechanical engineering program, not electrical engineering, and the suit's clutch-and-spring design reflects that. "The device puts force in parallel with the joint," Poon said.

SuitX's Nathan Poon shows the BackX and ShoulderX modules of the SuitX strength-augmentation suit.

SuitX's Nathan Poon shows the BackX and ShoulderX modules of the SuitX strength-augmentation suit.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The leg brace makes your body seem about 30 percent to 50 percent lighter, McKinley said. The back brace reduces muscle exertion about 60 percent and the shoulder brace about 80 percent, Poon said. "You have less likelihood of injury and longer stamina," he said.

SuitX's LegX and BackX modules strap on at the waist. You can wear one module or combine them.

SuitX's LegX and BackX modules strap on at the waist. You can wear one module or combine them.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The main customers so far are in manufacturing, aerospace and logistics, Poon said. Among carmakers, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler have given SuitX technology a whirl.

But SuitX also is working on a medical variation of the suit to help people with spinal cord injuries.

Some devices for that market are expensive enough that only clinics and hospitals buy them.

"The thing we have is about the cost of an electric wheelchair," McKinley said.

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