A Super Suit Design Challenge

By Roman, Harry T. | Technology and Engineering Teacher, September 2012 | Go to article overview

A Super Suit Design Challenge


Roman, Harry T., Technology and Engineering Teacher


INTRODUCTION

One of my favorite movie scenes is from Aliens, when Sigourney Weaver dons a super suit or exoskeleton and gives that nasty alien a most deserved thrashing. Since then, I have been fascinated with the possibility of being able to practically amplify human strength through a wearable prosthetic-type device. While performing my engineering job about 20 years ago, I gave serious thought to such a device for our power plant maintenance workers, allowing them to pick up very heavy loads and move easily about with them. In this design challenge, your students will have a chance to ruminate about these systems too.

GETTING STARTED

Engineers always think in total system concepts--and the pieces that make up the system. They strive to see the whole forest and the trees at the same time ... so let's first try to define the pieces or subsystems that would make up the whole super-suit system. This list should help us get our thinking underway and the creative juices flowing:

* The physical suit itself

* Types of articulating joints

* A power source for energizing it

* A system for keeping the human balanced with additional weight

* The controls

* Hand manipulators

This will get the process started, and as student teams get into the design, they will undoubtedly revise this initial list. In fact, it may be worthwhile for different team members to tackle one or more subsystem designs, with one team member overseeing the system integration function. In the engineering world, the project manager or system integrator is the "team captain" for the project and makes sure the various pieces or subsystems integrate seamlessly. This is an important function. It serves the same function as integrating the curriculum across a complete educational program, often the province of an academic department head or leader.

DOING SOME RESEARCH FIRST

The rich field of robotics and human prosthetics is available through the Internet. Students should dig deeply into the literature, paying particular attention to where research and prototype systems may be under development or nearing field testing. Places to search would include:

* Robot companies

* Robot industry groups

* University research labs

* Private research labs

* Federal government research

* Military research

* Medical research

* NASA

* Robot entertainment systems

The field of science fiction may also hold some ideas and concepts that could be identified and evaluated. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers had a storyline with soldiers equipped with jump suits.

Students might also try looking at the wonderful world of Walt Disney and its use of audio animatronics technology, which powers the many robots used in displays, shows, and exhibits. Disney has long been on the cutting edge of entertainment robots. Also, Japan has a walking robot known as "Asimo." What can be learned from this technological accomplishment?

It pays to also think about a broader definition of super suit or exoskeleton. Think about it. Is a car a generalized form of super suit

that allows us to travel along inside? After all, if we wear a super suit and plan to walk around in it, is that any different than "wearing" a car and rolling around in it? How about an airplane? This might help student teams to visualize the problem, and how it changes as the super suit gets closer to the actual human body "wearing" it until they fuse as almost one. …

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