Exoskeletons, and Metal Organic Frameworks
Estimates vary but we think that an ant can lift between 10 and 50 times its own body weight. For a human, that would be the equivalent of being able to pick up a truck. Now it seems that the car manufacturer Ford is seeking to take a leaf out of a leaf cutter ant’s book and is equipping staff on the production line with wearable exoskeleton suits to help with lifting and reaching. So is this the future? Here to share his wisdom with Chris Smith on this and other technology developments is business angel investor Peter Cowley...
Peter - An exoskeleton is a skeleton outside the body, and so examples of those are crabs, cockroaches. Human beings have endoskeletons - our skeletons are inside us. The point about an exoskeleton is to assist the movement of limbs, so whether those are arms or legs in order to either replace that limb or to improve the ability to do something. And this example with Ford is for workers who are possibly working above their head height underneath the chassis of a car tightening up nuts and bolts, which is really hard. If you imagine eight hours with something in your hand, which might only weigh a kilo or two, it’s going to be really difficult. A lot of of strain on both your arms and your shoulders.
Chris - How does it work then? Just describe what it looks like this exoskeleton. Is it like an "exosuit" that you would step into and you’ve got a wearable robot effectively on the outside of you?
Peter - A good question, yes. In fact yes, they are working on those sort of things, and the military, particularly, are working on things. But these ones that Ford have got from a company somewhere in the States are actually really small. They’re only four kilos, they mount on your shoulders and around your waist, and they provide a relatively small amount of lift. It’s only adding two to seven kilos, which is still quite a bit compared with your normal arm.
Chris - How are they powered then?
Peter - They’re powered with springs so it’s spring assistance here. The big ones you mentioned before are powered with, in one case, a little internal combustion engine. So you’ve got a little petrol engine on there and batteries and things, and they’re huge and they can weigh a hundred kilos on top of your own body weight.
Chris - So it’s almost like an external angle poise lamp that you’ve got strapped to your arm but it means that sustaining a position or a posture for an extended period of time, you’ve got that extra bit of support and makes it easier?
Peter - It’s a bit more than angle poise because it will actually assist you with lifting as well. It won’t just stay in position as the microphone in front of you is, it will actually allow you to push up as well.
Chris - But there is no such thing in physics as a ‘free lunch’ so you can’t get a push for nothing. So if it’s sprung loaded the energy must be supplied by the wearer to move it?
Peter - Well, it’s actually redistributed around your body I think, rather than just in your arm. So it’s you shoulders and the rest of your body that’s helping that assistance.
Chris - What do the workers say? Is it going down well?
Peter - There were some prototypes out for some time. I’m just taking this, of course, from the internet and they’ve just ordered 75 sets of these in order to go out throughout the factories around the world. They’re not cheap though because they’re low volume so they’re talking about 6,000 Dollars for each one. This is something without any batteries, without any power, without any computing power, etc.
Chris - But they must have done some kind of cost benefit analysis and worked out that’s 6,000 well spent? They must thing they’re going to get that back in terms of productivity, or fewer lawsuits because someone gets repetitive strain injury type things on the production line?
Peter - Exactly, yeah. I don’t think it will be productivity because I think the line will still move at the same speed, but it will be in terms of strain injury, and people being off work, and potentially lawsuits.
Chris - What about extrapolating this to people who have disabilities, weakness or other kinds of problems that means something like this might help them?
Peter - Yeah. This comes back to what you’ve just said; it’s that a spring loaded device won’t do that, you need something that’s actually got it’s own power. There are a number of exoskeletons that are being experimented with and sold around the world, particularly in Japan for the aged. An example might be that a nurse needs to lift a patient regularly and move them around. You can’t easily do that if you’re a small lady nurse perhaps and how are you going to lift 70 kilos or something? They can do that with these suits on.
Chris - Now in other news: you mentioned to me that you have been looking at some technology that you’re thinking of investing in. Tell us about that...
Peter - Yes. I’m a very very active Angel investor and have invested in over 60 startups, some of which have failed and some have executed a good amount of return. And the one I mentioned earlier on is actually coming out of the Engineering Department here, University of Cambridge. The concept is if you have a cylinder of gas, at a certain pressure you’ve got a certain amount of gas in there. If you add something called a metal oxide framework, which I’ll come to in a moment, you can actually increase the amount of gas in there. The volume of gas in there at the same pressure, which doesn’t seem to make much sense in principle because you’ve got more material in there, in the same volume, at the same pressure, but more. This metal oxide framework is a structure which allows the atoms of the gas, not of liquid of the gas, to be pulled into place; as such they’re not knocking into other atoms and, therefore, you can get more of them in the same volume.
Chris - People talk of these as a bit like a molecular sieve, don’t they? You can imagine chicken wire at the molecular scale, where the wires link together you would have atoms of different types and it gives specific properties so you can have different gauges of your chicken wire and you can have different chemical properties. So in this context you’re saying you can use this to store gas? Presumably they’re choosing atoms that lock onto the gas you want to put into the cylinder very tightly and enable it to bond onto the walls?
Peter - That’s right. The framework size will be tuned to the type of… so if you’ve got a single say hydrogen atom, which is probably not used for they’re minute. But if you’ve got a complex - acetylene or something - which is very much longer, you’ll need larger pockets for these molecules to sit in.
Chris - Why is this a good thing? Does this mean what, we can get more gas into the cylinder so we need to spend less money on very dense, thick cylinders so you can have a gas at lower pressure? What’s the reason for this technology?
Peter - Yes, that’s part of it. You can, at the same pressure, have the same thickness of wall so you don’t have to increase the pressure, but it’s more to do with transport. It’s to do with the fact you can transport around more gas. Now there is two ends to the spectrum; one end is amazingly is ships. So you imagine there’s a lot of natural gas, which isn’t liquefied, that’s transported around the world. And the numbers they’re talking about are 14 times. If you can get 14 times more gas in a ship, that makes a huge difference, doesn’t it, in terms of cost. And at the other end is bottles say of something used in hospitals where you don’t have to replace the cylinder that often.
Chris - Thank you Peter! Peter Cowley - whom you can also catch talking about business and entrepreneurship on his Invested Investor podcast.