DALLAS — DALLAS — Wearable machines that enhance human muscle power are poised to leave the realm of science fiction and help factory workers hoist heavier tools, lighten soldiers' loads and enable spinal patients to walk.Lockheed Martin and Parker
Hannifin are joining a handful of startups in finding practical uses and, more important, paying customers for bionic suits inspired by novelist Robert Heinlein's 1959 "Starship Troopers" and Stan Lee's Iron Man comic-book character.
Sales of mechanical exoskeletons cap decades of scientific tinkering that included a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) General Electric clunker in the 1960s. Strapped to users' bodies and powered by lithium-ion batteries, the emerging technology has led to some models that sell for about $70,000, weigh less than 50 pounds and are nimble enough to dance the Macarena.
"We're now seeing a golden age in which we can produce this technology and derive benefit from it," said Keith Maxwell, the business development manager for Lockheed's program. "There's a host of industries where this works."
The first commercial sale of a medical unit — not for lab or hospital tests — came in September, pioneering a field that may produce $400 million in annual revenue by 2020, according to technology consultant ABI Research. Lockheed says it hasn't estimated the value of any contracts for its under-development military version, known by the acronym HULC, or for the nascent industrial market its Mantis device will enter this year.
The machines may follow a classic arc from Pentagon research project to fixture on an assembly line, similar to the development of lasers, said Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at investment advisory firm Discern in San Francisco.
"The medical devices get the most attention, the military funds it and the first mass application is industrial," Saffo said in a telephone interview.
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.
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