Iron Man Suits for Real

Some superheroes and supervillains get bitten by radioactive animals to gain superpowers. Others have no superpowers at all. Instead they use engineering know-how. From Spider-Man’s robot-arm foe Dr Octopus to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, it’s their engineered suits that make them super…and they aren’t all fiction. Researchers are building suits that have powers like Iron Man’s suit. They have helped paralysed people walk again.

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Engineers call Iron Man’s suit a powered exoskeleton
It is like a wearable robot. The robot suit senses every tiny movement of the wearer. It then instantly copies or magnifies the movement. To do so needs fast computers. With slow computing the superhero would feel like they were wading through thick mud. Not a good idea when you’re trying to save the world.

Muscling in (a suit)
Humans move by using their muscles in pairs. For example, in your upper arm you have biceps and triceps which work together. Shortening your biceps muscle brings your lower arm up. Shortening your triceps pulls your lower arm back down. It’s a clever way to control movement. One kind of muscle does both jobs. In an exoskeleton the things that do the moving are called actuators. These are usually motors and they take the place of muscles.

The robot suit has to copy the movements of the person inside. As the human bends their arm to lift up an object, sensors in the suit measure the forces the person used, and the computer calculates how to move its ‘muscles’.

I knew you were going to do that
The sensors take thousands of readings every second from arms, legs, back, and so on. For example, when you lift a weight the computer calculates what all the exoskeleton ‘muscles’ need to do to mirror your movements. Then the robot arm moves the weight before you make any real effort (so you get no strain but a lot of gain!) The robot does the work and you just move naturally inside the frame.

Exoskeletons are helping people who are paralysed to walk again, and allowing people to carry heavy loads. Flying like Iron Man is still a bit tricky though.

Who can you design an exoskeleton for? A firefighter, a gymnast, a person with arthritis? What kinds of sensors might they have as well as actuators to improve the suit?


Fun to do: Create your own

Who can you design an exoskeleton for? A firefighter, a gymnast, a person with arthritis? What kinds of sensors might they have as well as actuators to improve the suit?


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