Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Image Credit: G.R. Whale
Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Image Credit: G.R. Whale
Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Image Credit: G.R. Whale
Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Image Credit: G.R. Whale
Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Hyundai HRL and WEX Exoskeletons
  • Image Credit: G.R. Whale
Hyundai makes some of the largest vehicles in the world – to wit, 185,000-ton ships with 56-foot high engines making power at 84 rpm – but its R&D division has found enough human-factor synergy with autonomous vehicle development that they're now working on robotic exoskeletons. We were recently introduced to two of these devices: the HRL designed to increase mobility and therefore quality of life for paraplegics; and the WEX, designed to assist in repetitive-motion lifting. Both of these machines are powered by replaceable lithium-ion battery packs with a 4-hour run time and 40-minute recharges.

The HRL robotic legs are designed for people 64 to 71 inches tall and less than 250 pounds. The aluminum segments are adjustable in centimeter increments over a 10-cm range, and the 22.4-inch width means it would fit in many long-haul aircraft forward seats. With the 4.4-lb battery pack, the HRL weighs about 41 pounds.

There are six 50:1 reduction-gear actuators, two pelvic actuators rated at 224 pound-feet of peak torque with 60-degree range of motion, and two hip and knee with 112 lb-ft peak, 180 degrees and twice the rotational speed of the pelvic motors. Twenty sensors control it all with default speed of just under a mile per hour and a top speed of 1.5 mph, and step length can be adjusted by smartphone via Bluetooth.

One of the accompanying crutches has four thumb buttons much like a video-game controller, though they're experimenting with simpler inputs including a joystick. The crutch communicates with the leg unit over a few feet of distance via Zigbee wireless protocol, with security layers added for both obvious reasons and to ensure two users in the same vicinity won't transmit to the other's unit.

An HRL can help you sit, stand, walk or climb and descend stairs; it will also stand on its own, simplifying the process of putting it on. Your correspondent is outside the design height limits so rather than do any impromptu CG research we deferred to colleague Chris Davies of Slashgear for impressions wearing it: "It grips tightly, the support would be comforting, and it delivers good posture. It does take some getting used to – when it first lifts up a leg to move it forward you do feel like you're going to fall over – but once you establish a gait and stop over-thinking it becomes much easier." Indeed, he never fell over and most who tried established a rhythm within a few minutes, if not a 1.5-mph sprint.

Hyundai exoskeleton

Having suffered only temporary back injury I can only imagine how much welcome freedom something like this could bring to a paraplegic. It might not have ankle actuators that would allow for driving an old Land Rover, but it does open a world of possibilities.

Doing the heavy lifting at Hyundai robotics is the WEX waist assist. A much simpler device but sharing many of the HRL's component designs, the 10-pound WEX is built to be wearable without getting in the way while walking or moving about, and activates only when you need to lift something, minimizing fatigue and strain from repetitive, or hefty, work.

WEX uses a single actuator with 56 lb-ft peak torque and rotational speed approaching 100 rpm to assist lifting from the hip pivot point. Think of a weightlifter's clean-and-jerk motion – that initial quick motion is the best way to trigger the WEX, at which point it helps pop you upright like an old Christmas toy freshly wound up.

At first demo I imagined how much the guys in the tire shop last week lifting 156-pound tire-and-wheel combos onto a H1 Hummer might like it. So too might someone loading trucks or pallets, sanitation districts without automated-arm trucks, those heaving agricultural or farming supplies, or assembly line workers installing heavy cylinder heads or cranks.

Hyundai anticipates US and Korean government certification on these devices in 2017 and plans deployment in 2018.

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