Developing technology for both civilian and military use would be a boost for Lockheed, the world's largest defense contractor, as it confronts reductions in U.S. arms spending. Parker Hannifin, the biggest manufacturer of motion and control devices, is seeking to expand into the medical industry.
Commercial exoskeletons are just echoes of Hollywood's take on Iron Man's bulletproof garb and the armor that Heinlein envisioned for his futuristic warriors.
Ekso Bionics' device for spinal patients looks like the lower half of a black metal skeleton able to stand by itself on foot pads. Parker Hannifin's medical model breaks into five pieces and resembles elongated, plastic football thigh pads worn on the sides of users' legs.
Electric motors amplify the strength in their wearers' limbs or, in the case of the wheelchair-bound, to supply motive power. Computers and sensors help provide balance and guidance.
"There's a huge wave of human augmentation coming," said Ekso Bionics Chief Executive Officer Nathan Harding, whose Richmond, Calif.-based company has devices in operation at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey and other spinal-cord injury centers. "It's in its infancy."
Argo Medical Technologies entered the market last year, with an exoskeleton to assist patients who have lost the use of their legs. Parker Hannifin's Indego model also targets those users, and will go on sale in 2014 at a price the company says is competitive with Argo's 52,000-euro ($67,230) unit.
In between those introductions will come Lockheed's Mantis, which the Bethesda, Md.-based company envisions as finding a home in any industry in which workers must hold heavy equipment that can cause fatigue and back injuries.
Mantis has a mechanical extension for a wearer's arm and absorbs the strain from hefting a grinder or sander, Maxwell said. Tests found productivity gains of more than 30 percent, he said, and wearers showed their Macarena footwork to demonstrate the suits' flexibility.