Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Home brew exoskeleton

In the back of Carlos Owens' southern Alaska yard, an 18-foot-tall steel robot is taking shape in the dim light of the winter afternoons.

The 26-year-old Owens is an Anchorage-area steelworker by day. In his own time, he's hoping to become the creator of a true "mecha"--not a robot, exactly, but a gigantic exoskeleton that can transform its wearer's motions into eight-foot strides and the devastating sweep of a steel fist.

Sure, it sounds like a cartoon or sci-fi fantasy--but so were moon landings 50 years ago. Owens' mecha project is well on its way to completion, its horned red head and pincher hands towering above its creator under a few inches of snow. He's hoping to finish it in time for a test spin at the local drag racetrack next summer, demolishing a few cars to show off its capabilities.

"This is a concept that's been around for a long time," Owens said in a telephone interview. "But I'm not going to wait for the other guy to come out and make it when I've got the capability to do it myself."

The project is a tinkerer's dream, a homegrown technological mania in the same better-judgment-be-damned spirit as the Homebrew Computer Club that ultimately gave birth to Apple Computer and Silicon Valley's microcomputer industry. In Owens' case, the scale simply happens to be more macro than micro.

He's drawing from an imaginative well that has inspired big corporations and the U.S. military, as well as innumerable video game developers and Hollywood directors over the years. A Japanese manga, or comic book, called "Tetsujin 28-go" was published in the late 1950s featuring the adventures of a giant robot, and was ultimately animated and released in the United States as "Gigantor." Hundreds of Japanese anime cartoons such as "Robotech" or "Mobile Suit Gundam" later featured giant robots, often controlled by human pilots.

"I'm not going to wait for the other guy to come out and make it when I've got the capability to do it myself."
--Carlos Owens, steelworker and mecha creator

It's been a common theme in U.S. science fiction, too, although typically on a more human scale. Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel "Starship Troopers," and the 1997 film made from the book, featured soldiers with powerful exoskeletal armor that dramatically augmented their strength. Sigourney Weaver's character in "Aliens" fights wearing something a little like what Owens is trying to build, and powered armor made a prominent appearance in last year's "Matrix Revolutions."

Efforts to replicate these tools in the real world have been less than successful, however. The U.S. Navy and General Electric collaborated on an exoskeleton project in the late 1960s, coming up with the cumbersome Hardiman prototype, a massive steel frame intended to be strapped onto its users' arms and legs to help them lift up to 1,500 pounds.

The GE project operators never got more than one arm working, however, and the project died in the early 1970s.

Backyard builder
Owens is a soft-spoken former Army heavy equipment mechanic who describes his improbable project in a matter-of-fact voice, as though talking about putting a new transmission into a used pickup truck. The son of an Air Force officer, he was born in the Philippines and moved around for years as a child before winding up outside Anchorage.

He's always had an eye for huge projects, and an inventor's itch. He built a 35-foot wooden version of his mecha when he was 19, he said, as a sculpture project because he couldn't afford the materials to make it function. The latest project, drawing on his experience in the Army and as a steelworker, is more ambitious.

"With the mecha I wanted to do something different than what everyone else was doing. It's hard to invent something new."
--Carlos Owens

"I've always been building things," he said. "But with the mecha I wanted to do something different than what everyone else was doing. It's hard to invent something new."

When completed, the idea is for the pilot to be able to strap himself into a central, padded compartment, and then control the mecha with the motions of his own body. When the pilot walks, the mecha walks. Raise an arm and open a hand, and the mecha does the same, with 46 possible movements planned.

Owens said he can't afford top-of-the line equipment, like infrared sensors and electronics that would govern the motion. Instead he's using a hydraulic system to transfer the motion of his limbs to the larger structure, and a gas engine mounted on the back to generate the power needed. In all, the system can exert about 3,500 pounds per square inch, or more than enough to set his ton and a half creation in motion, he said.

One of the trickiest problems is balance. Lying in a giant, potentially lethal robot that can't get up after falling down would be no good to anyone, and so he's made sure the lower half weighs far more than the upper, along with other design modifications, he said.

In all, the materials for the project have cost him $15,000 so far. Not bad for a killing (or at least potentially flame-throwing, car-mashing) machine.

That's a lot less than the $50 million that the U.S. military, through its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) division, has devoted to research into a smaller, lighter exoskeleton that can be used on the battlefield.

DARPA has been pursuing the idea of a "Starship Troopers"-inspired soldier at least since 2000, when it started its Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program.

"This technology will extend the mission payload and/or mission range of the soldier and increase the lethality and survivability of ground troops for short-range missions and special operations," the agency says on its Web site. The project's director did not return a call for comment.

Early this year, a University of California, Berkeley, team unveiled the first fruit of the DARPA research with its BLEEX (Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton) system, which resembles a set of leg braces and a big backpack. The system allows users to carry extremely heavy packs without abnormal exertion, or could help people with atrophied or poor muscles to walk normally.

In the short term, Owens is more interested in the entertainment value of an 18-foot monster crushing cars, or fighting others like it. Assuming he can make it work--still a big assumption--he wants funding to build more and to develop the project using top-of-the-line materials instead of backyard shortcuts.

"The racetrack is never quite enough. The die-hards will always come, but everyone else is looking for something new and different. I think this qualifies."
--Karen Lackey, racetrack owner

Karen Lackey, who co-owns the local racetrack with her husband (and was once Owens' English teacher), said she's eager to let Owens show off his project when it's ready. An 18-foot-tall steel figure stalking around the circle, shooting flames from its fists and crushing cars would certainly sell tickets, she said.

"I think it would have a lot of public appeal," Lackey said. "The racetrack is never quite enough. The die-hards will always come, but everyone else is looking for something new and different. I think this qualifies."

Owens foresees a day when tools like his might be used on the battlefield instead of tanks, or dropped into the middle of a raging forest fire to help firefighters. But for now, the trick is to simply make the mecha take its first few steps with him inside, a crucial test he's hoping to pull off in a few months.

"It's like trying to invent the wheel from scratch," he said. "I want everything to go smoothly. When I take it out on the track, there are going to be about 3,000 or more people out there, and I'm just trying to avoid any embarrassing moments."

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