Ekso Bionics' prototype exoskeleton for construction workers
Carter Dow Photography Ekso Bionics' prototype exoskeleton for construction workers

Editors' Note: Future Shocks is an occasional series of articles in which we looking just over the horizon of LBM's future, five to 10 years out, to products and building processes that likely will be part of your operations in the year 2023.

What’s the difference between a bomb site and a demolition site? Not much; they’re both dangerously messy places to work. And why has construction historically been a man’s job? In large part because there’s so much heavy stuff that a worker has to tote, lift, and manipulate.

That’s why Pentagon research and development of robots and exoskeletons matter. Just as the military helped birth weather satellites and the Internet, the creations it’s working on today could end up on your store shelves next to the stilts that drywallers wear. 

Exoskeleton for Walking
Ekso Bionics' exoskeleton for walking

For instance, the U.S. Navy is testing an exoskeleton called the Fortis that increases the wearer’s strength and endurance by transferring the weight of heavy loads from the operator to the device’s frame. 

The device makes it possible for operators to hold objects weighing up to 36 pounds with virtually no effort. That not only could help reduce everyone’s fatigue-related injuries and insurance costs, such as from back problems, it also could make it easier for women to take on tasks requiring significant upper-body strength.

Fortis is unpowered. Exoskeletons augmented with powered motors—again, a military offshoot—already are being used at rehabilitation clinics to help people with lower-body injuries relearn how to walk.

A company called Ekso Bionics, which helps produce those exoskeletons for rehab work, has begun development work on a version of its exoskeleton for construction workers.

Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave out $3.5 million in prize money this summer to the top three teams in its Robotics Challenge. That competition’s goal was to spur development of robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. The contest challenged the robots to do things like drive a vehicle through an obstacle course, turn a handle, cut a hole in a wall, flip a switch, plug a hose into a wall, climb a set of stairs, and maneuver through debris. 

Notably, the robot that dominated the initial trials last year—a Japanese creation named SCHAFT—never went to the final round because it was bought by Google. No word on whether a consumer-friendly version of SCHAFT will be Google’s successor to its driverless car.

And at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, the multi-disciplinary Rust Belt Robotics Group is developing robots that can assist humans by carrying heavy materials, even up stairs.