At a sprawling shipyard in South Korea, workers dressed in wearable robotics were hefting large hunks of metal, pipes and other objects as if they were nothing.
It was all part of a test last year by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, at their facility in Okpo-dong. The company, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world, wants to take production to the next level by outfitting staff with robot exoskeletons that give them superhuman strength.
Gilwhoan Chu, the lead engineer for the firm’s research and development arm, says the pilot showed that the exoskeleton does help workers perform their tasks. His team is working to improve the prototypes so that they can go into regular use in the shipyard, where robots already run a large portion of a hugely complex assembly system.
The exoskeleton fits anyone between 160 and 185 centimetres tall. Workers do not feel the weight of its 28-kilogram frame of carbon, aluminium alloy and steel, as the suit supports itself and is engineered to follow the wearer’s movements. With a 3-hour battery life, the exoskeleton allows users to walk at a normal pace and, in its prototype form, it can lift objects with a mass of up to 30 kilograms.
To don the exoskeleton, workers start by strapping their feet on to foot pads at the base of the robot. Padded straps at the thigh, waist and across the chest connect the user to the suit, allowing the robot to move with their bodies as it bears loads for them. A system of hydraulic joints and electric motors running up the outside of the legs links to a backpack, which powers and controls the rig.
Frames designed for individual tasks can be attached to the backpack, with some arcing over a person’s head like a small crane. As well as boosting raw lifting ability, the suit helps workers manipulate heavy components precisely: it takes most of the weight, so the user is effectively handling light objects.
Chu says worker feedback from the trial has been mostly positive. Testers were pleased that the exoskeleton let them lift heavy objects repeatedly without strain, but everyone also wanted it to move faster and be able to cope with heavier loads. Chu is working on it. “Our current research target of the lifting capacity is about 100 kilograms,” he says.
The world’s top three shipbuilding firms are South Korean – Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Samsung Heavy Industries – and their shipyards are already renowned for their level of automation. In a study of the firms’ facilities in 2012, US Navy personnel found that five out of the six yards they visited used robots in some capacity. At one shipyard, robots did 68 per cent of all welding as well as carrying out jobs from cutting and grinding steel to polishing freshly assembled hulls, with minimal human oversight.
“At the time, most of the yards we toured were significantly more advanced in robotic welding than the US yards performing naval ship construction, and had been for a long time,” Gene Mitchell, the retired US Navy officer who led the research told New Scientist.
All this automation goes into building truly gargantuan vessels. Daewoo has a $1.9 billion contract from shipping giant Maersk to build 10 55,000-tonne container ships. Each 400 metres in length, with space for 18,000 containers, they will be the largest of their kind ever built.
As the industry grows, so too will the need for automation, including robotic suits of the kind Daewoo is experimenting with. The prototypes still have several important kinks to be worked out, though. In tests, workers had a hard time negotiating sloping or slippery surfaces. And the prototypes cannot yet cope with twisting motions, so workers making turns while carrying heavy objects could tire out easily.
Still, Chu is committed. “We’ve been developing and applying robots and automation in shipbuilding for more than a decade,” he says. And if he has his way, humans will soon be effortlessly wielding ship parts that weigh more than they do.