Exoskeleton Technology Comes Down to Earth

Exoskeleton Technology Comes Down to Earth

John Kirkley

When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) strapped on that massive combat exoskeleton in the 1986 movie, Alien, you knew the rampaging extraterrestrial was in for a world of hurt.

More recently Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems have been designing and testing their own exoskeletons – but rather than combating murderous aliens, these suits are destined for more benign uses.

NCMS, through its Commercial Technologies for Maintenance Activities (CTMA) – a collaboration between the Center, its member companies and the Department of Defense– is coordinating tests of the Lockheed Martin and BAE exoskeletons at U.S. Navy shipyards at Puget Sound, WA and Norfolk, VA.


One of the jobs undertaken by workers wearing the Lockheed exoskeleton involves removing sound abatement covering wrapped around the hulls of obsolete Navy submarines.  This is hard, dirty work requiring the use of heavy cutting and grinding tools that can weigh as much as 36 pounds. Workers fatigue quickly and risk injury due to the strain on muscles and joints and productivity suffers.

And this is where an exoskeleton is invaluable. These human augmentation devices significantly increase the wearer’s strength and endurance by transferring the weight of heavy loads from the user’s body directly to the ground. A heavy tool becomes essentially weightless.

Both the Lockheed Martin and BAE exoskeletons are equipped with zeroG, a gimbaled robotic arm from Equipois.

According to Dana Ellis, NCMS Senior Program Manager, the flexible, lightweight units have dramatically reduced fatigue and the chance of injury, while boosting productivity by 50%.

Mantis is the prototype for Lockheed’s next generation exoskeleton known as FORTIS (Latin for “strong”).  Because of its strength and flexibility, FORTIS moves with the worker’s body whether he or she (the suit adapts to a wide range of sizes and body types) is standing, kneeling or walking.  Already, workers fitted with the exoskeleton have experienced a 300% reduction in muscle fatigue, productivity gains of 2 to 27 times, and decreased down time due to injuries.

Both the Lockheed Mantis and FORTIS are unpowered systems.  BAE is taking a different approach, powering its Orthotic Load Assistance Device (OLAD) with Li-ion rechargeable batteries or a 28-volt drill battery.

OLAD was initially developed with soldiers carrying heavy backpacks in mind.  However, the company is well aware that they have created a system that can be used in many different applications that require human augmentation, including the demanding work at Naval shipyards.

The OLAD exoskeleton equipped with a zeroG robotic arm has already been tested at BAE shipyards.  Through the NCMS CTMA program, the units will undergo further testing at the Puget Sound and Norfolk Naval shipyards.

Lockheed’s FORTIS system will be on display at the upcoming 2014 Maintenance Symposium, November 17-20, Birmingham, AL.  NCMS is showcasing a variety of maintenance capabilities on the CTMA Technology Main Street (Table Top Expo).  The exoskeleton will be featured as part of the CTMA human augmentation technology display. So be sure to stop by the exhibit and see how far exoskeleton technology has evolved since Ripley was locked in mortal combat with that bloodthirsty space alien decades ago.

You can read the full case study highlighting the Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems exoskeletons here.