Lockheed Martin took some time during the recent Association of the US Army Conference (AUSA) in Washington DC to show why their exoskeleton, the
Incredible Hulk- HULC, fears no competitor. Originally developed by Berkeley Bionics, Lockheed Martin has been readying the HULC for use as a human lifting enhancement device for the US Army. Its structure allows a soldier to carry 200 lbs, plus the device's own 82 lbs, without feeling the extra weight. Users can walk, or even jog, with the HULC without considerable loss of mobility. In short, the HULC is awesome and it's clearly getting closer and closer to actual deployment. Check out the exoskeleton strutting its stuff at AUSA in the videos below. Large steel plates are no match for the HULC's lifting prowess.
We've seen a lot of exoskeletons lately, but I'd put the HULC above most of them. Lockheed Martin may not be quite ready to push it to market (does the US Army count as 'market'?) but it outperforms the $230,000 Power Loader Light that Active Link recently released. Conversely, the HULC may not have arms like Raytheon's XOS 2, but it's years closer to going on sale, and the HULC also isn't chained to a tether. For a lower body exoskeleton, it's hard to do better than the HULC. Its lifting support structure looks rugged and useful, and it's clear that the device still lets operators move in a natural and comfortable way. But don't take my word for it, watch the HULC walk the floors of AUSA in the video from Wired below. These guys are mobile.
Here's Lockheed Martin's official (and very brief) video from AUSA:
As good as the HULC may be, I've never been really sure about its potential in the Army. Lockheed Martin continually discusses the exoskeleton as 'mission capable', but I really can't imagine wanting to have an 82 lb device on my back while taking enemy fire. As comfortable as the guys in the video above look while using the HULC, it just doesn't seem suited to combat. In the Wired segment, the operator can move while the HULC is unpowered, but he is visibly slower.
No, I'm pretty convinced that hauling exoskeletons like the HULC are going to do their best work in warehouses, hospitals, and nursing homes. Lifting a heavy crate, moving a patient from bed to bed, or helping an old person get up - those are the real tasks for current exos. That doesn't rule out Army use, of course, but it does mean the HULC can drop that giant steel shield.
The Army angle will produce some nice fringe benefits though. Lockheed's working to give the HULC an ultra long battery life (72+ hours), and that could be great news when exoskeletons like this start to see use for medical care. Berkeley Bionics has already unveiled a walker for paraplegics that has the same basic technology as HULC. There are a lot of wheelchair bound folks who could use some robot legs that lasted for three days between charges. For that reason alone, I'm happy that the HULC is getting some major strutting time at conferences. Now, if Lockheed will only get off its ass and actually announce its price for the exo, I'd be a happy little blogger.