(Source: Lockheed Martin)
New exoskeleton technology could increase worker productivity, cut injuries from aircraft and ship assembly

While the U.S. military's interest in exosuits has been primarily focused on bulky heavy-lifters, a new "Iron Man" suit from Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) is reviving the much older concept of unpowered purely mechanical exosuits using cutting edge materials and machining.  
Lockheed Martin earlier this week announced that it had scored government funding.  It is selling the government a pair of the exosuits for evaluation purposes.  The announcement comes hot on the heels of a similar announcement by top South Korean shipbuilder Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Comp., Ltd. (KRX:042660), who last month reported it was using in-house designed exosuits of its own to support workers in shipbuilding.
I. Lockheed Dives Deep Into Exoskeleton Fray
The new work is the product of the Orlando, Florida-based Lockheed Martin Exoskeleton Technologies unit, a subunit of the "new initiatives" group at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control -- one of five major divisions of the massive defense giant.  The exoskeleton unit is still relatively green, formed in late 2008.  

Lockheed Martin Exoskeleton technologies

Lockheed Martin's exoskeleton effort was initially a skeleton crew of part-timers until late 2008 when the firm struck up a business relationship with Ekso Bionics.  
Ekso began life at University of California, Berkeley's (UC Berkley) Berkeley Robotics & Human Engineering Laboratory before being spun off in 2005.  Ekso maintained a close relationship with Berkley Labs and in 2007 the pair began developing a new hydraulically powered third-generation exoskeleton dubbed the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC).
 In 2009 Ekso officially disclosed its business relationship with Lockheed Martin, announcing Lockheed Martin's intent to license and develop the HULC for military uses.  Today the HULC has advanced substantially [PDF] and is capable of carrying 150 lb (68.0 kg) comfortably and walking at brisk walking speeds of 3 mph or in a full out 10 mph run -- fast enough to do a 6 minute mile -- in bursts.

HULC exoskeleton testing
The HULC exoskeleton

Ekso's 2013 annual filing with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) reveals that in 2009-2013 Lockheed Martin paid over $6M USD in licensing fees for the HULC technology -- or roughly $1.2M USD per year.  Lockheed Martin sustained the project on a number of military grants and purchase orders to test the tech.

At its inception the exoskeleton team members at Lockheed Martin answered directly to Missiles and Fire Control director Jim Ni.  Recently Ni was shuffled to another division and David Huber took over the top spot.  
Lockheed Martin also appointed Keith Maxwell, as head of exoskeleton business unit.  Mr. Maxwell answers to Adam Miller, director of the Missile and Fire Control's "New Initiatives" subdivision.  Mr. Miller, in turn answers to Mr. Huber.  Mr. Maxwell is a veteran defense-tech manager who previously worked at the space units of Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) (Program Manager; 2001-2004) and Honeywell, Inc. (HON) (Sales Director; 2004-2005).

Lockheed Martin -- Keith Maxwell
Keith Maxwell, Lockheed Martin's exoskeleton program manager dogfoods the device at a U.S. Army field test. [Image Source: unknown]

He believes that exosuits/exoskeletons -- a two centuries old dream that was popularized by science fiction and comic book writers in the 1960s -- is finally on the brink of commercial viability.  In an interview last year with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, he stated:
We're now seeing a golden age in which we can produce this technology and derive benefit from it.  There’s a host of industries where this works.
In 2011 Lockheed Martin demonstrated a HULC prototype with an attached ZeroG arm from Los Angeles, Calif.-based manufacturing tools startup Equipois, Inc.  Developed for the U.S. Navy with the intention of reducing worker strain from hand tool use, the prototype was dubbed "industrial Human Augmentation Systems" -- iHAS.
This suit would eventually evolve into FORTIS.
II. The Need for FORTIS
Some may wonder -- why does the U.S. Navy need to spend $10,000+ USD on a exoskeleton/exosuits to assist shipbuilders?
The answer is that the difficulty of using heavy hand tools makes even the most fit shipbuilders lose productivity.  And in the case of older employees injuries abound.  All of these factors add up to big costs for the U.S. Navy -- and by proxy, U.S. manufacturers.
Among the injury-related costs reported by the U.S. Navy in recent reports include:
  • Workman’s Compensation
  • Hiring costs for temporary or permanent replacements
  • Replacement worker training costs
  • Additional costs for temporary workers who may also have lower work skills
  • Lower overall productivity
  • Fewer units per hour
  • Lower yields
  • Damage to material or equipment that would not occur with an experienced worker
  • Increased rework
  • Lower quality
  • Increases in absenteeism
  • Loss of skilled workers
Naval shipyard injuries
[Image Source: NSWC]

A 2013 presentation by research staff with the Carderock Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) at a shipbuilding conference further describes [PDF]:

Aside from injuries, for typical shipyard grinding applications, approximately ½ of all work time is non-productive, as workers require frequent breaks from operating the tool. 

Lockheed Martin and U.S. Navy researchers believe the solution to this problem could be the use of a supportive exoskeleton -- namely iHAS.


The 2013 presentation by the NSWC describes the evolution of iHAS:

In 2011, the initial prototype was demonstrated on production work at PSNS&IMF and Newport News Shipbuilding. The prototype was comprised of the Army funded Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC, from Lockheed Martin and a zeroG
arm. The HULC is a $250,000 battery powered and hydraulically actuated exoskeleton.

At the demonstrations, some shipyard personnel estimated that a 5 to 1 increase in productivity may be possible for augmented versus manual grinding. There was a noticeable improvement in quality, and a large reduction in strain and fatigue was reported.

In addition, one worker had a musculoskeletal disease and could no longer
hold a grinder; however, the iHAS enabled the worker to rather easily perform overhead grinding operations.

These preliminary results were extremely promising, leading the team to pursue an iHAS design optimized specifically for industrial tool holding applications.

In 2012, Lockheed Martin and its partners realized a bulky battery-powered hydraulic suit might not be necessary to realize the gains of the first generation iHAS.  By 2012 Lockheed Martin had produced three, second generation prototypes, using an unpowered HULC-derived design which it called Multi-Attachment Non-Tethered Industrial System (MANTIS).

Mantis and iHas
MANTIS (left) is an integral component of iHAS (center and right).  iHAS eventually evolved into FORTIS.
[Image Source: NSWC]

The NSWC report describes:

To create the mobile, mechanical load transfer system prototypes, the battery and hydraulics were removed from three HULC units and with some other relatively minor design changes, Lockheed Martin produced three Multi-Attachment Non-Tethered Industrial System (MANTIS) lower extremity exoskeletons. The data substantiates the improved productivity and quality, and the reduced strain and fatigue experienced when using the iHAS.

Ekso's 2013 annual filing reveals it played a role in developing the MANTIS suit in 2012.  It writes:

More recently, Lockheed and Ekso Bionics initiated development of a non-powered exoskeleton called MANTISTM.  MANTIS is designed to allow industrial workers in a dynamic and unstructured work environment to achieve their tasks with reduced musculoskeletal injuries related to lifting and working with heavy tools.

Although the Company believes the MANTIS and similar industrial exoskeletons have the potential to help prevent workforce injuries, improve productivity and over time reduce workmen’s compensation and related costs, the Company has invested little of its own resources to date on these efforts. The focus of our work so far has been in building an IP portfolio that will help us enter that market at a future date.

Naval Shipyard testing in 2012 showed the MANTIS iterant of iHAS significantly reduced lower body injuries, and appeared to potentially be reducing upper body injuries as well. 

Exoskeleton iHAS testing
The MANTIS-based iHAS prototype (with MANTIS being based on a stripped-down HULC suit) is tested in paint stripping operations at a U.S. Navy shipyard in 2012. [Image Source: NSWC]

The NSWC report on iHAS further describes MANTIS's capabilities, writing:

The MANTIS is a lightweight non-powered exoskeleton. It was designed by Lockheed Martin to provide a low cost and high reliability lower-extremity load carriage solution when worn by an operator for industrial applications.

Any object which is attached to the MANTIS will feel weightless due to the fact that the load of the object will be transferred to the ground through the exo-skeleton. A picture of the MANTIS can be seen in figure 3. 

When worn by a human, the MANTIS has minimal impact on the mobility of the human. An individual can still perform tasks such as walk up and down stairs, jog, perform lunges, walk up and down ladders etc. It is also adjustable to fit the majority of humans. The current design of the MANTIS will fit users ranging in height from 66” to 74”; the next generation (to debut in 2014) will drastically expand that range.

It describes the overall iHAS system, stating:

The iHAS is a combination of the MANTIS exoskeleton, the zeroG Arm, and gimbals system. The MANTIS provides mobility and maneuverability to the zeroG Arm, and transfers the weight of the zeroG Arm and tool away from the worker through its anthropomorphic structure bypassing the human operator’s musculoskeletal system. This relieves the worker of strain and fatigue that is typically associated with heavy tool use. The effective forces felt by the operator are dramatically diminished, thus significantly reducing the risk of injuries and operator fatigue.

The current iHAS is one of 3 prototypes in the world and costs roughly $250,000 a copy due to the use of HULC components. The Navy has a 2015 target cost for the commercially available units of $15,000 to $20,000 per copy. While this may seem expensive, the iHAS will easily pay for itself many times over by saving money [by reducing aformenetioned factors...

The full iHAS weighs approximately 68 pounds, not including a tool. This weight is fully supported by the exoskeleton structure, ensuring that the user does not feel any
impact from the additional load. In fact, while wearing the iHAS, most users reported feeling like they were wearing a light backpack of approximately 10 pounds.

Workers can fully suit themselves up in the iHAS in about 2 minutes, including putting on the arm, counterweights and the gimbals with a tool mounted. Conversely the iHAS can be
removed in about 10 seconds in an emergency by releasing four simple clasps and two Velcro straps. In normal operations, a worker can remove the gimbals with mounted tool, the arm and the counterweights, and then remove the MANTIS, all in under a minute. Removing the iHAS can be accomplished by a single worker, without any assistance.

While the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin were rather quiet about the more nascent MANTIS and iHAS efforts (which received little media coverage), this month the exoskeleton received a far more noisy and enthusiastic media reception.
Rebranded as FORTIS -- Latin for "strength" -- the third generation iHAS model is nearing productivity and appears to be a very polished design.  A government funded private sector research center has used taxpayer funding -- primarily from Congressional earmarks -- to purchase a pair of the FORTIS exoskeletons for a lengthy evaluation and testing process.  

Cost was not disclosed, but based on the NSWC 2013 presentation, we can guess that it was around $50,000-$100,000 USD, as the third generation iHAS phased out the more expensive HULC parts.
The new Lockheed Martin design carries the catch phrase "Strength Meets Mobility".  The exosuit is unusual in at least one regard versus most commercially available industrial, medical, or defense exoskeletons -- it is unpowered. 

Lockheed Martin Fortis

In that regard the exosuit -- which features a backpack-like torso wrap, including shoulder and stomach straps and leg-brace like fittings to strap in the user's legs -- functions somewhat like a knee brace or ACE bandage.  But unlike sports braces, this suit not only provides resistance to traumatic joint torque, but also is weight bearing.  Once you enter a position the exosuit carry much of the weight, allowing you to focus on taxing, repetitive manual tasks.

Lockheed brags that it increases muscle endurance three-fold and can speed up work times on certain repetitive tasks by anywhere from 2 to 27 times.

Lockheed Martin Fortis

The exosuit itself is composed of high-strength lightweight metal alloys in the leg braces, high-strength plastics in the joints and leg braces, and fabrics in the backpack torso mount.

Lockheed Martin Exosuit views
(Click to enlarge)

Adam Miller, director of the new technologies subdivision of the Missile and Fire Control division at Lockheed Martin describes:

Ship maintenance often requires use of heavy tools, such as grinders, riveters or sandblasters.  Those tools take a toll on operators due to the tools’ weight and the tight areas where they are sometimes used. By wearing the FORTIS exoskeleton, operators can hold the weight of those heavy tools for extended periods of time with reduced fatigue.

The suit fits both adult males and females and is adjustable.
V. ZeroG Arm
The suit's "killer app" is technically not even made by Lockheed Martin.  The suit is designed to work with the third party "ZeroG Arm".  Manufacturing equipment company Equipois Inc. produces the mechanical assist arm.  


Equipois is a proven startup, founded based on six spring, gimbal, and mechanical arm patents filed for by serial inventor Garrett Brown. Garret Brown was best known as the inventor of the filmmaking "Steadicam" tool.

Garrett Brown, Steadicam
Garrett Brown, inventor of the steadicam, developed the technology behind the zeroG4 arm.
[Image Source: Garrett Brown]

He operated and used his invention to film The Shining, Rocky, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and other hit movies filmed from the 1980s onward.
Garrett Brown filming Rocky
Garrett Brown is seen here using his invention to film a boxing match for the movie Rocky.
[Image Source: Garrett Brown]

While his career has been largely focused on entertainment, with Equipois Mr. Brown looked to apply his innovations to a very different field -- exosuits.
Garrett Brown
These days Garrett Brown (left) is working with a young generation of cinematography engineers to develop new and innovative camera designs.  But he's also dabbling in exoskleton tech.
[Image Source: Steadicam Operators]

Equipois in spring of 2008 [PDF] began commercial sales of its first generation model, the zeroG-30.  Today, several iterations and tweaks later, Equipois is marketing a pair of arms, which includes the model used in iHAS/FORTIS, the ZeroG4.

ZeroG4 Arm

Since 2008, the ZeroG arm family has outperformed expectations, accruing an eye-popping laundry-list of blue chip clients.  Among its customers are The Boeing Comp. (BA), Airbus (a subsidiary of The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V. (EADS) (EPA:EAD)), General Electric Comp. (GE), Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC), Caterpillar Inc. (CAT), Oshkosh Corp. (OSK), John Deere Ltd., Fiat Industrial SpA's (BIT:FIAT) Chrysler, Ford Motor Comp. (F), Honda Motor Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7267), Nissan Motor Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7201), and Toyota Motor Corp. (TYO:7203).
Part of the reason for the ZeroG arms' popularity is their flexibility to support such a broad set of heavy hand tools.  Among the tools supported include:
  • Grinders
  • Sanders
  • Drills
  • Rivet Squeezers
  • Torque Tools
  • Nut Runners
  • Industrial driers
ZeroG4 arm

Another cause for the feeding frenzy of manufacturers buying the arm?  Equipois claims a rather incredible one-year payoff for purchase of the arm support.
The figure is based on the reduction to costs of lost productivity, damage to product, and other costs associated with employee inefficiency or usage injuries.  Such a bold claim might provoke skepticism, but given the level of adoption there's little cause to doubt its veracity.
Most recently, Equipois was scooped up [PDF], becoming a subsidiary of the family-owned Allard Nazarian Group Inc.'s Granite State Manufacturing division.
ZeroG4 arm
The patented ZeroG4 arm can swing a full 130 degrees up and down, with multiple points of articulation. [Image Source: Equipois]

Here's a quick set of facts on Equpois' arm used in FORTIS, the ZeroG4:
  • Unpowered, much like the FORTIS
  • Patent-protected
  • Chassis material: 5052 aluminum ally
  • Machined parts: 300 series stainless steel
  • Springs: Zinc plated alloy
  • Weight: ~ 14 lb with base end effector
  • Up/Down Sweep: 130 deg.
  • Veritical Reach: 32 in. (2'8" ; 0.81 m)
  • Horizontal Reach: 34 in. (2'10" ; 0.86 m)
Equipois ZeroG4, extended
The ZeroG4, fully extended [Image Source: Equipois]

Lockheed Martin was well aware of Equipois before the FORTIS project -- it was one of its customers.  When it went to build FORTIS, the ZeroG4 arm seemed a natural addition, particularly since Equipois did not produce a competing product.
Company literature and the Equipois' photo library show the ZeroG4 mounted to a variety of ground stands, wall beams, etc. -- but no full body exosuits.  Equipois does make an exosuit technology of its own -- X-Ar.  However, X-Ar is an upper body unpowered arm-support exosuit; hence it is not competing with FORTIS directly.
Equipois's x-Ar augmented arm [Image Source: Equipois] 

In a way, what Lockheed Martin has done has been to give the Equipois arm unpowered legs, making it freely mobile.  Hence this represents a serious expansion of the already lauded design's capabilities, if the technology can reach maturity and mass production.

Equipois in use

Its arm mounts to the set of posts atop FORTIS's leg supports, to the side of each hip.  Each arm can support tools weighing up to 36 lbs (16.3 kg) via a series of springs that redistribute weight down into the braces.  The arms have at least five adjustable points of articulation.
The user can mount up to two of these arms to their exosuit at once.  In Lockheed Martin's solution, a set of weights added to the post on the user's back counterweights the ZeroG Arm to prevent the user from losing their balance.

FORTIS in action
(click to enlarge)

So the ZeroG4 arm has got a leg.  Now it's marching towards the market as the third generation FORTIS product.
VI. FORTIS's Dark Side
A final word to the curious should be added on the cost of FORTIS.
We preface this by saying we believe that FORTIS is a good expenditure of taxpayer money and hence it alone should not be singled out for criticism.  In fact, we believe the cost is relatively low (possibly $100,00 USD or less per unit).  With that said, the non-disclosed amount of the grant to procure two FORTIS exosuits for testing highlights the questionable practice of earmarks aimed at the U.S. military-industrial (defense) complex.
Lockheed Martin's press release makes no attempt to disguise this lack of transparency, openly boasting in its press release:
This marks the first procurement of Lockheed Martin’s exoskeletons for industrial use. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.
The contract was issued by the U.S. Department of Defense's (DOD) private-public collaborative Commercial Technologies for Maintenance Activities (CTMA) program.  Funded primarily by taxpayer-provided DOD funding, this research directive is managed primarily by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), a defense-centric private-sector nonprofit.  The NCMS represents a variety of U.S. manufacturers.  A key goal of the program is to find more efficient ways to manufacture the large aircraft, vehicles, and ships involved in modern warfare and defense logistics.

NCMS logo

The FORTIS suit will be a great advance to manufacturing, if it lives up to the potential and hype.  And it will likely save the taxpayers money.
However, the financing structure highlights a questionable payment system that could ultimately lead to outright corruption and funding of far less worthy projects due to its lack of transparency.  The problem is the NCMS has received hundreds of millions in funding from U.S. taxpayers over the last two decades, largely from Congressional earmarks.
Some of these earmarks total as much as $40M USD (as disclosed in a lawsuit).  But most of them are line items on bills and never made public.  The NCMS takes this taxpayer money and gives it to private companies to study their products and support their research.  That's fine and good, but the key problem is that the NCMS operates in a complete vacuum of transparency and is not held to the same standards of disclosure that other federally funded research projects -- such as U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-funded projects -- are.

Congress bribes
Congress today is a vehicle driven by lobbyists. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Unlike intelligence funding, which is also questionably redacted under the guise of "national security", the NCSM has literally no reason not to disclose how it's spending taxpayer funding.

Hence while the FORTIS suit seems like a very worthwhile cause and a smart investment on behalf of the taxpayers, its purchase highlights the need to keep a careful eye on NCSM and demand that Congress make its grant funding public.  After all, not every project can be a superhuman exosuit combining some of the most proven efforts in the field (the ZeroG arm and Ekso Bionics design legacies).

[All images in this article are courtesy of Lockheed Martin or the U.S. Navy unless otherwise noted.]

Sources: Lockheed Martin [product page], [press release], NCMS report on iHAS [PDF]

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