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Researchers in China just delivered a new exoskeleton system customized for firefighting in the woods — an advanced addition to the suite of tools with which firefighters confront forest fires, according to an initial report from Global Times.

China’s new firefighter exoskeleton takes just 60 seconds to put on

“This exoskeleton system will be applied to enhance a firefighter’s weight carrying capability to up to 50 kilograms, facilitating their movements in complicated environments such as mountain areas and in the woods,” said China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) developers in the Global Times report. The Human Function Enhancement Technology Research Center — which is under CASIC — developed the new exoskeleton system, which weighs 11 lbs (5 kg) and can save more than 50% of the energy humans expend in walking, climbing, and carrying objects, according to the system developers.

Crucially, the exoskeleton system takes less than 60 seconds to put on or take off — making it highly efficient in a critical situation. China’s State Council put forward a national emergency plan for forest and grassland fires on Nov. 23, 2020 — requiring an upgrade for firefighting equipment, in addition to a greater stock of equipment for national emergency plans in cases of grassland and forest firefighting. The developers say the new exoskeleton meets the state’s demands.

Earlier, the Human Function Enhancement Technology Research Center delivered their exoskeleton product for high-altitude regions in Nov. 2020 — but were designed to reduce energy expenditure for wearers carrying out logistics and patrol activities. A separate exoskeleton developed by the same firm was used to seek and recover the return capsule of China’s Chang’e-5 robotic lunar probe — which returned roughly 4.4 lbs (2 kg) of samples from the moon to Earth, in a first after four decades.

Exoskeletons can help people with mobility issues

Two members of the search and recovery team wore exoskeletons that day, but going forward we should expect to see wider use of exoskeletons in other parts of the world, not only for official or military uses, but also to assist those with mobility issues. In Aug. 2020, a team of engineers developed an exoskeleton design called the “Open Exosuit for Differently Abled”, and subsequently entered the suit and walker into the Hackaday Prize 2020.

The Open Exosuit for Differently Abled project mixes a walker and exosuit to help people with mobility issues stand and walk again. More than an obvious means for greater stability, the walker enables the wearer to issue commands to the exosuit — helping it redirect the person’s motion and intentions. It also comes with an integrated O-LED screen display, with four walker buttons to inform the exosuit what motion is coming next — sitting, standing, walking, or turning the system on or off.

However, the driving force behind many advancements in robotics is largely industrial or militaristic. In 2019, the United States Special Operations Command granted a contract to Sarcos Robotics to deliver an exoskeleton — called “Guardian™ XO®” — that gives humans super-strength. Naturally, after a decade of Marvel movies, the reception was great because this body augmentation system most closely resembles the fictional Iron Man suit. But however fantastic and great robotic enhancements might seem on the silver screen, we should probably remember that advanced technology is only impressive until it works against the wellbeing of humans.

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