IT’S an idea straight out of the Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man, but wearable robotic suits could be coming to everyday workplaces as part of an ambitious venture to reduce injuries.
Scientists from across Europe are working on the Robo-mate project, which plans to test an artificial exoskeleton which can be worn by factory employees within three years.
The project is part of an effort by the EU to muscle in on the lucrative robotics market, which it is predicted will be worth more than £40 billion a year worldwide in the next 15 years.
Italian car maker Fiat and French vehicle recycler Indra are involved in the initiative, which involves 12 research institutions from seven European countries.
The goal is the creation of a lightweight wearable suit to assist with manual work, which will require no programming.
Dr Carmen Constantinescu, from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, one of the organisations involved, said the robots would provide extra power for humans to carry out complex tasks such as the deconstruction of cars.
“People have to manipulate parts or components that weigh more than 10kg,” she said. “These activities are not carried out just once per day but are repetitive.
“An exoskeleton with a human inside represents a new type of research for the manufacturing industry. It offers a hybrid approach in which the robotic parts support the human, who can provide the decisions and cognition needed.”
David Lane, a professor of autonomous systems engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, said robots are set to become more prevalent in everyday life.
“There’s a groundswell of belief around robots in general that’s going to change the way we do things,” he said. “Robotics is one of the areas the UK has prioritised for development, as has Europe. This project is an example of the kind of thing that’s happening. Whether someone would climb into an Iron Man suit is a different matter, but this is on the way to that.”
Work has already been carried out on robotic exoskeletons by defence firm Lockheed Martin to improve the capabilities of soldiers, and in Japan where it is hoped the technology can help tackle problems associated with an ageing population.
Dr Nir Oren, a lecturer in robotics at Aberdeen University, said: “People should be able to climb straight in and work the skeleton with no programming.
“Basically, it’s a stronger version of you, which responds to your motions and increases your strength.”