The movie RoboCop was 26 years ago, long enough that there is a remake due out in 2014. For all its over-the-top moments (my personal favorite is where the bad guy’s face gets dissolved in corrosive sludge towards the end), it established that trying to automate police work is probably a bad idea.
Maybe that’s why so many people are upset about the use of drone aircraft.
We won’t be recycling all-but-dead cops into cyborgs anytime soon, but there is some robot-like research ongoing that could someday make it into the law enforcement sector.
Instead of robots, this initiative is concerned with exoskeletons. In biology, an exoskeleton is a rigid shell that serves the same function as bones in higher creatures, at the same time protecting all the gooey stuff inside. They’re mostly limited to insects and crustaceans. With people, an exoskeleton is a kind of motorized brace that augments the wearer’s capabilities. Wearing an exoskeleton, you might be able to run as fast as a car could drive, or lift ten times your own weight.
The prime movers behind exoskeleton research presently are people from NASA and the nuclear energy industry. The near-meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima caused the entire industry, and the Japanese in particular, to reconsider their capabilities for working inside radioactive containment vessels. People can’t stay in there for long, and sometimes not at all, because of radiation.
Machines sent in to do the jobs that humans would perform have to be able to go where humans go and do what humans do, and also have to be ultra-reliable. Once you send a piece of equipment into a radioactive area, it becomes contaminated and it’s probably there for good. It can’t be prone to breakdowns, and maintenance has to be do-able remotely via another machine.
The University of Tsukuba in Japan has developed the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) as a possible solution for reactor vessel repairs. The operator rides inside the machine, shielded by tungsten that reduces radiation exposure by about half, and the weight of the device is borne by the external legs. The suit includes a cooling system and biosensors to monitor the operator’s respiration and heart rate. The extra load-carrying capacity of the exoskeleton is mostly devoted to supporting the weight of the machine, rather than increasing the operator’s carrying capacity.
NASA is looking at a different problem. Space explorers spend a lot of time in weightless environments, where muscles atrophy and bone tissue loses density. Astronauts returning from extended missions on the International Space Station (ISS) often have to be carried like invalids, as they no longer have the strength to walk upright under their own power. Missions to other planets will necessarily entail long weightless transits, ending at a place that has gravity that may be greater than earth-normal. If the astronaut has to construct shelter or other necessities of life at the destination, there won’t be any forklifts or earthmovers to aid him.
The XI Robotic Exoskeleton under development by NASA has two functions. In augmentation mode, it permits the operator sitting inside it to lift and carry far more weight than he could unassisted in normal gravity. This is important not just for the ability to perform useful work on the surface of a planet, but also for supporting the weight of the astronaut’s protective suit.
The “enhanced extravehicular activity spacesuit” worn by shuttle and ISS astronauts for doing work outside the vessel weighs 319 lbs. without the astronaut. That’s not especially critical in weightless space, but it would immobilize a man on the surface of a planet. The XI Robotic Exoskeleton carries the weight of a protective suit, as well as an additional payload of useful things to be carried from one place to another.
The XI Robotic Exoskeleton has a second function in “inhibit mode.” Used this way, every movement of the wearer is resisted by the frame, creating resistance and preserving muscle and skeletal density. Exercise is critical for astronauts, but it’s difficult to perform exercises that address all the muscle groups in the absence of gravity. Wearing the exoskeleton, an astronaut can perform the full range of movement and get enough resistance for a good workout.
How will this technology find its way into public safety? It’s probably more likely to have first applications in the fire service and EMS. It’s not too difficult, though, to imagine a scenario where a super-strong cop would be advantageous in a tactical situation. You won’t see it this year or next, but the technological development cycle seems to get shorter all the time. Early models might be available by the time the most recently elected president — whoever that turns out to be — leaves office.