The idea of wearing a robotic exoskeleton to increase an individual’s combat capabilities isn’t a new one in science fiction. I grew up watching cartoons like Exo-Squad and movies like Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver taught me that hell hath no fury like a woman wearing a hydraulic exo-suit. The Fallout series of video games relies heavily on “power armor” – or armored exo-skeletons designed to afford infantry soldiers the same level of protection usually found only in tanks, and Iron-Man launched the Marvel cinematic universe with a flying set of robotic armor and some cheeky one liners. Movies like Pacific Rim would have us believe that the best way to engage Godzilla-sized monsters is with Godzilla-sized robots, and although the logistics of that seem fuzzy, it’s cool enough for me to agree without much deeper thought.
When Colonel Army Marine Kill Guy from Avatar (seriously, did anyone watch that movie more than once?) decided to take on a tribe of blue space hippies, his go-to weapon wasn’t small pox like it likely should have been, it was a robot covered in machine guns, and as a movie goer, I was immediately down with that. The thing is, I’d always been under the impression that the AT-AT style Imperial Walkers I saw on Star Wars were mere flights of fancy – too advanced, or impractical, to ever see legitimate use in a combat situation.
But one South Korean tech company just unveiled a robot that might turn science fiction into reality.
Hankook Mirae Technology recently unveiled the Method 2. It’s a bipedal robot designed to be manned by a human pilot sitting inside the behemoth’s chest, and it uses the latest in human-machine interface technology to offer extremely dynamic, and human-like, movements. According to its creators, the Method 2 “is the world’s first manned bipedal robot and is built to work in extreme hazardous areas where humans cannot go (unprotected).” According to this nerd, it’s also probably our only hope against Doctor Octopus.
The robotic suit is thirteen feet tall and weighs in at a whopping one and a half tons. If it looks a bit like something you’d find in a movie, there’s good reason for it. Vitaly Bulgarov, the robot’s designer, worked with Industrial Light and Magic on films like Transformers, Robocop and Terminator, as well as with Boston Dynamics on real bipedal robots. He has now combined the two into something that looks like it belongs on the movie screen, but is actually very real.
“Everything we have been learning so far on this robot can be applied to solve real-world problems,” Bulgarov wrote on his Facebook page. This robot is not being developed for publicity’s sake, but with tactical and practical uses at the forefront of the design process. While the Method 2 still requires a tether to provide power, and is not yet as sure on its feet as would be necessary for use outside of the controlled environment of their South Korean laboratory, the company’s chairman claims he expects it to be ready for use in a wide variety of applications within the next two years.
“The robot is one year old so it is taking baby steps,” Yang said. “Just like humans, it will be able to move more freely in the next couple of years.”
Each of the robot’s arms weighs nearly three hundred pounds, but can move and articulate nearly as gracefully as a person’s. Primary among the hurdles faced by the South Korean engineers that brought the Method 2 to life was the sheer scale of the project, as no other robots of this size have ever been built with real-world applications in mind. In many regards, the men and women involved in this project have had to re-invent the robotic wheel, so to speak.
Yang claims the robot will be ready for sale by the end of 2017, at a price tag of just about $8.3 million. According to the company’s chairman, they have already received a number of inquiries from industries ranging from manufacturing and construction to entertainment. There has even been discussion about the potential for arming the Method 2 for deployment in the Demilitarized Zone separating South Korea from their North Korean neighbors. The real potential, however, will likely come from the next generation robots designed with the lessons learned through the development of the larger-than-life exo-suit. If the Method 2 becomes the Ford Model T of robotic power armor, those movies I grew up watching may not seem so unrealistic after all.
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