A half-century before a similar system set the plot of the blockbuster movie “Elysium” in motion, GE called it “The Man Augmentation Program.” The real-world electrically powered mechanical skeleton rose to shoulder height, had crude pincers for hands and promised to “endow a man with the strength of a giant.” But though it was sponsored by the U.S. Army’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (an early version of DARPA), the machine was far from top secret– it featured prominently in a public GE film reel from 1966 called “The Science Report.”
The quest to convene what a 1969 Schenectady Gazette article quoted one official calling “an intimate marriage” between man and machine has been a preoccupation of sci-fi from Elysium to James Cameron’s Aliens to H.G. Wells. In the years after World War II, GE began developing Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machine Systems (CAMS) that could “emulate and amplify” the movements of an operator while also giving feedback from the machine to the operator.
Old-School Elysium: An early rendering of an exoskeleton that was part of GE’s “Man Augmentation Program.”
The cooperation with the Army on “Man Augmentation” began back in 1961 and soon after acquired the catchier name “Hardiman.” The project’s objective: creating a suit that could mimic the user’s natural movements and enable him to lift up to 1,500 lbs. – which, coincidentally, was how much the suit itself weighed.
The Man Augmentation Program section begins at 2:30.
The Army and GE envisioned that the device would be ideal for tasks like loading bombs. It was developed along a parallel track with a device GE called “The Walking Truck,” a four-legged, human-controlled machine that resembled AT-AT walkers from Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back.
Hardiman never made it into production due to its size, weight, instability, and power-supply issues. Some of the 1960s-era CAMS technology that went into its design, though, is still around today in the form of the Man-Mate industrial manipulator.
Western Space and Marine, founded by a GE engineer who worked on the Man-Mate line in the 1970s, bought the rights to that technology and continued to develop it. Today, a giant robotic arm, which uses force-feedback to allow the operator to lift loads up to 10,000 lbs., is employed in the forging and foundry industries.
Will a practical human exoskeleton ever become a reality? Or will another advancement replace the need for the invention? For example, robots like Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog (which resembles the GE Walking Truck of 60 years ago) and ATLAS, one of the most advanced humanoid robots, may one day do the heavy lifting for us.