Exoskeleton suits to do heavy lifting

When a big fire knocks out the lift systems in a tower, it could extend the time needed for firefighters carrying heavy equipment to reach the top floors via the stairs.

A new Ironman-like suit - dubbed the exoskeleton - being developed here will allow a Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighter to carry a heavy weight of up to 50kg without feeling any strain.

Instead, the only thing he will feel is the suit strapped to his body.

Currently, a fireman has to lug about 40kg of equipment to fight a raging fire. They include breathing apparatus, hoses and nozzles and hydraulic breaking tools.

The exoskeleton suit will lighten his load and make him feel less tired so that he can better concentrate on fighting the flames.

This mechanical arm is an early concept of how the exoskeleton might work. Users can easily lift 10kg without feeling any strain. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG


Made primarily of aluminium and carbon fibre and weighing 25kg to 30kg, it will be especially useful in cases involving collapsed structures.

In a recent demonstration for The Straits Times, the arm of the exoskeleton suit could easily lift a 10kg weight.

However, the spokesman said the arm is but an early concept and serves as a demonstration of what exoskeleton technology could do.

He added: "We expect the final product to be quite different."

By wearing a full exoskeleton suit, an SCDF officer can easily lift one end of a piece of debris - up to 100kg - to free people stuck underneath. This will help save more lives as time is crucial in such cases.

Two exoskeleton prototypes

Currently, several officers are required to free survivors pinned underneath debris using different pieces of equipment such as hydraulic jacks and lifting airbags.

Officers wearing an exoskeleton suit must be able to squat, walk on flat ground and climb up and down 10 storeys of stairs. An SCDF officer has to be between 1.6m and 1.8m tall and weigh between 60kg and 80kg to wear the suit. He will be trained before he is allowed to don one.

The suit is a joint project between SCDF and the Ministry of Home Affairs' (MHA) Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer.

Two sets of exoskeleton prototype systems are being developed concurrently for firefighting, rescue and medical evacuation operations. They are powered differently - one by compressed air and the other, hydraulically. The prototypes are expected to be ready for tests and evaluations this year.

When asked how many exoskeleton suits will be made in all, a spokesman for the SCDF said they are "still in the preliminary stages of development".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Exoskeleton suits to do heavy lifting'. Print Edition | Subscribe