Powered Exoskeletons

hulc-testing-1

As some readers will know, I have a great interest in prosthetics and other aids that help people to overcome barriers due to their being in some way different. Recently I wrote articles about prosthetic limbs, interviewed the World record holding runner Martina Caironi and looked at canes for the blind. Many posts ago I looked at elective amputation, and today I would like to cast my gaze over exoskeletons.

Companies have now started to produce powered exoskeletons in various forms, for both military and civilian use. Dual use technology has also always been of interest to me for some time, as it is difficult to see how we could draw a line between civilian use and development and military use. If we think that most robot limb and hand developments are geared towards treating soldiers who have been injured while on active service, then we see why the military is the largest investor in such research.

If we take the powered exoskeleton the link is more obvious. The military want an armoured exoskeleton that supports itself (so the soldier does not have to carry the weight) that can enable said soldier to carry more ammunition and supplies, heavier weaponry and move quicker and for a longer period of time.

Robocop comes to mind. But one thing is for sure, the FDA recently gave approval for the sales of the first exoskeleton in the USA, and you can also get one if you live in Europe or parts of the Middle East (at a cost of about $65,000), and so they will soon be seen on the streets.

And there are also many applications in hospital. The machines are used to get people walking again who have had accidents, to build up muscle and to aid other forms of rehab such as balance loss. Who could say that technology that allows someone to walk again after years in a wheelchair is a bad thing?

Exoskeleton in Medical Use

Exoskeleton in Medical Use

 

Well there are actually some arguments related to this. Many of the following are taken from an article called Exoskeletons in a disabilities context: the need for social and ethical research , written by Jathan Sadowski of Arizona State University and available here (payment required).

One problem is that creating the model of how it is correct to move and “be”, makes the non acceptability of alternatives worse. To give an example, the more technology works towards making us all walk upright, as many humans do, the more those who do not walk upright become marginalized. Society does not change to incorporate the differences, but moves to “rectify” the differences, as if it was just a problem to be solved. This may not be the right approach. This wonderful article by Jenny Davis explains all.

Another possible problem is dependence. If a person has access to such a machine they may grow to be dependent upon it. What happens if they lose the use of the machine? If they can no longer afford it, or it is withdrawn, or breaks down? With dependency comes withdrawal, and we might imagine that it would be serious cold turkey in this case. And all this comes without mention of the problem of availability to all. These systems are not cheap.

There are many industrial applications that relate to the needs for the soldiers above, allowing workers to carry heavy objects for long periods of time, or use heavier machinery, something that could on the surface be seen as little more than an advancement in industrialized production methods. This kind of technology would be fantastic for disaster workers too, as well as fire fighters and people working in remote areas or difficult to access spaces.

Here are a couple of links that you might be interested in. This Forbes video shows the development of a new military exoskeleton, once more explaining its civilian use. This TED talk is a little older, showing the development of the same project. Neither has any critical view of the technology however, and the TED talk almost looks like publicity.

In some of the cases above the use of this technology could undoubtedly be described as human enhancement. In others some would say that it is something more akin to a mechanical wheelchair that improves mobility. But one thing is for sure, as Sadowski point out in the article cited above, “any serious consideration – whether critique, condemnation, or support – of enhancement technologies must also incorporate critical inquiry about ethics, politics, justice, and social relations”.

The Importance of the Moon

Earth's natural satellite - the moonThe Moon is something many of us take for granted. It doesn’t really do that much, it just sits up their in space.

When someone talks about the Moon what springs to mind? Werewolves? Cheese? Wallace and Gromit?

Maybe you think of Apollo 11 in 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon.

I watched a very interesting BBC documentary recently called Do We Really Need the Moon? It explored how important the Moon has been to the development of life on Earth, and how important it may become in the future of space travel.

The Moon is likely to have been critical to the creation of life on Earth. It is believed that the Moon was formed when another planet crashed into Earth. At this point, the Earth was an uninhabitable, unstable lava wasteland. The collision created millions of pieces of molten rock which were sent into orbit. The biggest of these chunks of liquid rock grouped together (thanks to our old friend gravity) to form a new structure. Eventually all the pieces either became a part of the Moon, joined onto the Earth, or were flung off into space.

This massive collision reset Earth’s chemistry. Over the next 7 million years, it is thought that the Earth cooled, and water vapour condensed to form oceans. Oceans which the Moon controlled. The water nearest the Moon is affected by its gravitational pull more. This means that water recedes in other areas, amassing in the part of the ocean that is closest to the Moon. This is what creates the tides we know today, the same tides that are thought to have helped to create life – around 4 billion years ago.

Moon's gravity pulling the Earth

A picture from the BBC documentary Do We Really Need the Moon? showing how the Moon’s gravity pulls the oceans of the world towards it – creating tides.

So the Moon helped to create life, but that’s not all, it also helps to maintain it. The distance the Moon is away from the Earth, means that the tides are not too extreme. If the Moon were 20 times close than it is today then the Moon’s gravity would be 400 times stronger than it is today. This would create a huge tidal surge that would completely submerge all major cities around the world. At night, London would be underwater, and then a few hours later the waters would recede and flood New York. Evolution would not be able to adapt to changes that happened this quickly, and life on Earth would not exist.

The Moon also protects us in another way. Here is an image of the nearside of the Moon – the side we always see.

The nearside of the MoonNow here is an image of the farside, also known as the dark side of the Moon.

The farside of the MoonNotice a difference?

The farside is covered in a mass of craters, whilst the nearside is largely unscathed. Every crater on the farside of the Moon is a potential impact that the Moon has prevented for the Earth. Imagine that all meteoroids in space are chunks of iron, and the Moon is a giant magnet. The Moon pulls a lot of this space debris towards it.

Inevitably some meteoroids will collide with Earth, however the Moon does a pretty good job of shielding our planet from a lot of dangerous impacts.

We are pretty lucky really, if the Moon were much closer, or bigger, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Likewise, if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

So next time you see the Moon, spare a thought for how integral it is to life on Earth.

That’s Not It!

Enjoyed this article? Feeling like you want a bit more Moon stuff? Next week I continue to look at the Moon, this time from the perspective of space travel!

The Rosetta Space Mission

rosetta

This week I am muscling in on Christopher’s space series with a guest post about comet exploration.

In a couple of weeks (on November 12th to be precise), scientists will try to put a lander on a comet for the first time ever. The mission blasted off 10 years ago, made its rendezvous and began orbiting in August of this year, and is currently being prepared to touch down.

The mission is called Rosetta, and it is operated by the European Space Agency. It is a risky mission though and there are no guarantees that the lander will be able to plant itself safely on the comet. But if all goes well, the lander will stay operational as the comet flies closer and closer to the sun in its elliptical orbit, so that it can study how proximity to the sun changes the elements that make up the comet. The orbiter will follow, and should stay with comet until the end of next year, while the lander will operate until the spring when it will then get too hot to function.

Comets are some of the oldest structures in the solar system, so learning what they are made of and how they undergo change is seen as the closest thing to going back to the formation of the system currently possible. Scientists hope to gather evidence about water and carbon content, to see if the Earth could have got its first water and elements that are needed for the development of life from such bodies.

The Europeans Space agency has an interactive graphic so you can see how Rosetta arrived at its destination, and it is well worth a look. You really get an idea of the task of getting to something that is just a few KM across and traveling at 55 000 Kilometres per hour.

This article in the online journal Science gives lots more information, and there are some great photos here.

The European Space Agency are also running a competition to name the area where the craft is due to touch down. They want the public to propose names and reasons to use them, so that someone has the chance to enter the history books as their name will be immortalized. Why not give it a go, read more here.

Bluetooth Gloves

bluetooth gloves

Life in the Netherlands involves biking. Biking involves getting cold hands in the winter. Getting cold hands in the winter means difficulty operating your mobile phone.

It is typical, you are riding down the cycle-path, it is raining, your hands are cold, you might be wearing gloves. The phone rings. You stumble to the side of the path, take your gloves off if you are wearing them because otherwise you can’t get into the pockets of your jeans, through the waterproof trousers and take out your phone. By this time at the last second the person decides that you are not going to answer and bang… missed call with a withheld number. What was it? You will never know.

And your hands are now even colder, the touch screen does not register and in a nervous moment you drop the phone trying to put it back into your pocket with wet hands. You get off the bike, put the stand down, go to retrieve your phone (the back has come off so you have to reset various things) and the bike falls over because of the weight in the panniers.

This every-day occurrence could become a thing of the past though, thanks to a fine invention. Bluetooth gloves. Yes ladies and gentlemen, gloves that use bluetooth to operate your phone. You just press the answer button on the glove, make the phone with your fingers as you do when you are pretending to make a call or playing with the kids, and speak. The sound comes out of the thumb, and the pinky has a microphone.

Available in black or grey, mens or women’s sizes, but unfortunately only with the phone fitted in the left hand, the gloves can even be worn while operating a touchscreen. They are dry cleanable and charge with a USB.

I know what is going on my list for Santa.

The Size of Space

I’m starting with a fact today; two actually.

FACT

According to astronomer Dr Peter Edwards, if our solar system was a grain of sand, then The Milky Way (our Galaxy) would be 1,000 times the size of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral from the South

Durham Cathedral

FACT

According to NASA there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.

Need a more visual representation of that? Well luckily for you, the American Museum of Natural History have spent quite a long time developing a digital universe.

Somewhat mind boggling, isn’t it. Dr Edwards doesn’t think the human mind is really built to understand the enormity of the universe. I think I probably agree with him.

In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on a seemingly empty area of space. This area of space could be covered up with just a single grain of sand if you were looking at it from Earth. Astronomers didn’t think they would discover much, but if you have a super duper space telescope, why not see what it can find?

This is what that seemingly empty bit of space actually looked like when Hubble zoomed in.

A Hubble Space Telescope picture of millions of galaxy clustersEvery single speck of light you can see is a galaxy. Yes the 100 or so huge ones in the foreground, but also the millions in the background.

Each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Yes many of them look insignificantly small, but they are very very far away. So the well used fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth is actually true. In fact there are many billions more stars in space than their are grains of sand on the Earth.

The title of this article suggests that I will try to qualification the size of space. This isn’t really possible, so all we can currently do is describe its size, relative to other things. If I had to use one word to describe space, I think it would have to be enormous.

A key question surrounding space is: is it infinite?

That is an existential question which I doubt we will ever know the answer to, but never the less it is still an interesting question, which is worth considering.

The theory that the universe is a sphere – like the Earth – is a popular one, and I can understand the logic in this, if you keep going, eventually the universe will loop you back around to where you started. But then my problem with this theory is we can go beyond the Earth. We can travel around the Earth, but space travel prove that we can move in 3 dimensions, straight and sideways on Earth and then upwards into space. If you got to the very edge of the universe, what would happen if you went upwards? If there isn’t an upwards, what is there?

New Scientist states that from all current data, it seems that the known universe has a diameter of about 93 billion light years. That’s pretty big, but by no means infinite. So if this estimate is correct – which is ridiculously unlikely – what comes after that? A big wall with a no entry sign? Just empty space? Another universe? Who knows…

That’s Your Lot

See you next week for the next in the series.