Daily Archives: May 16, 2008

Robotic suit could usher in super soldier era


Software engineer Rex Jameson, wearing a robotic soldier suit being made for the U.S. Army by Raytheon, poses next to a mockup statue of a future soldier on Monday, April 14, 2008, in Salt Lake City. The suit can multiply its wearer’s strength and endurance as many as 20 times, with relatively little loss of agility, by sensing and almost instantly amplifying every movement the wearer makes.

AP | May 15, 2008


Rex Jameson bikes and swims regularly, and plays tennis and skis when time allows. But the 5-foot-11, 180-pound software engineer is lucky if he presses 200 pounds — that is, until he steps into an “exoskeleton” of aluminum and electronics that multiplies his strength and endurance as many as 20 times.

With the outfit’s claw-like metal hand extensions, he gripped a weight set’s bar at a recent demonstration and knocked off hundreds of repetitions. Once, he did 500.

“Everyone gets bored much more quickly than I get tired,” Jameson said.

Jameson — who works for robotics firm Sarcos Inc. in Salt Lake City, which is under contract with the U.S. Army — is helping assess the 150-pound suit’s viability for the soldiers of tomorrow. The suit works by sensing every movement the wearer makes and almost instantly amplifying it.

The Army believes soldiers may someday wear the suits in combat, but it’s focusing for now on applications such as loading cargo or repairing heavy equipment. Sarcos is developing the technology under a two-year contract worth up to $10 million, and the Army plans initial field tests next year.

Before the technology can become practical, the developers must overcome cost barriers and extend the suit’s battery life. Jameson was tethered to power cords during his demonstration because the current battery lasts just 30 minutes.

But the technology already offers evidence that robotics can amplify human muscle power in reality — not just in the realm of comic books and movies like the recently debuted “Iron Man,” about a wealthy weapons designer who builds a high-tech suit to battle bad guys.

“Everybody likes the idea of being a superhero, and this is all about expanding the capabilities of a human,” said Stephen Jacobsen, chief designer of the Sarcos suit.

Soldier of the future: Robotic and bred to kill, kill, kill

The Army’s exoskeleton research dates to 1995, but has yet to yield practical suits. Sarcos’ technology sufficiently impressed Raytheon Co., however, that the Waltham, Mass.-based defense contractor bought Sarcos’ robotics business last November. Sarcos also has developed robotic dinosaurs for a Universal Studios’ “Jurassic Park” theme park ride.

Jack Obusek, a former colonel now with the Army’s Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center in the Boston suburb of Natick, foresees robot-suited soldiers unloading heavy ammunition boxes from helicopters, lugging hundreds of pounds of gear over rough terrain or even relying on the suit’s strength-enhancing capabilities to make repairs to tanks that break down in inconvenient locations.

Sarcos’ Jacobsen envisions factory workers someday using the technology to perform manual labor more easily, and firefighters more quickly carrying heavy gear up stairwells of burning buildings. Disabled people also may find uses for the technology, he said.

“We see the value being realized when these suits can be built in great numbers for both military and commercial uses, and they start coming down in cost to within the range of the price of a small car,” said Jacobsen. He declined to estimate how much the suit might cost in mass production.

But cost isn’t the only obstacle. For example, developers eventually hope to lengthen the suit’s backpack battery’s life and tinker with the suit’s design to use less energy. Meanwhile, the suit can draw power from a generator, a tank or helicopter. And there are gas engines that, while noisy, small enough to fit into the suit’s backpack.

“The power issue is probably the No. 1 challenge standing in the way of getting this thing in the field,” Obusek said.

But he said Sarcos appears to have overcome the key challenge of pairing super-fast microprocessors with sensors that detect movements by the body’s joints and transmit data about them to the suit’s internal computer.

Much as the brain sends signals to tendons to get muscles to move, the computer sends instructions to hydraulic valves. The valves mimic tendons by driving the suit’s mechanical limbs, replicating and amplifying the wearer’s movements almost instantly.

“With all the previous attempts at this technology, there has been a slight lag time between the intent of the human, and the actual movement of the machine,” Obusek said.

In the demonstration, the bulky suit slowed Jameson a bit, but he could move almost normally. When a soccer ball was thrown at him, he bounced it back off his helmeted head. He repeatedly struck a punching bag and, slowly but surely, he climbed stairs in the suit’s clunky aluminum boots, which made him look like a Frankenstein monster.

“It feels less agile than it is,” Jameson said. “Because of the way the control laws work, it’s ever so slightly slower than I am. And because we are so in tune with our bodies’ responses, this tiny delay initially made me tense.”

Now, he’s used to it.

“I can regain my balance naturally after stumbling — something I discovered completely by accident.”

Learning was easy, he said.

“It takes no special training, beyond learning to relax and trust the robot,” he said.

Bush and Cheney doing extremely well as economy gets flushed down the toilet


Bush, Cheney assets stable as economy slowed

Reuters | May 15, 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the U.S. economy slowed in 2007, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney saw their assets stay stable, according to financial disclosure reports released by the White House on Thursday.

The reports showed little change for Bush and Cheney even as a collapse in the housing market caused a credit crunch and led the Federal Reserve to rapidly cut interest rates.

Bush and his wife Laura reported assets worth between $7.2 million and $20.2 million last year, nearly matching the $7.5 million to $20 million they reported in 2006.

Cheney, who spent years in the corporate board room, reported significantly higher assets for himself and his wife Lynne, ranging from almost $21 million to $99.3 million, according to his financial disclosure.

The Cheneys’ assets mirror a range of $21 million to around $100 million reported in 2006. Much of his wealth came from his past role as the head of the oil services firm Halliburton Co.

The disclosures only give the asset values in ranges.

Bush reported gifts worth $15,370. An avid biker after he had to give up running because of knee problems, the president received a $6,160 bike from Trek Bikes and two bike power meters worth almost $3,000.

He also received night vision goggles from Cheney worth $579, a $1,155 self-propelled trimmer/mower and accessories and a $400 custom Hawaiian shirt which were both given to him by the White House staff, according to his disclosure report.

Bush held a wide range of assets, including $2.95 million to $5.75 million in U.S. treasuries, his Texas ranch worth between $1 million to $5 million, a $844,000 stake in a tree farm and $123,715 in the GWB Rangers Corp — the assets from when he was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.


Parents’ losses compounded by China’s one-child policy


China’s one-child policy magnifies the loss parents are feeling after learning their child died in the earthquake.

CNN | May 15, 2008

By Kyung Lah

SICHUAN, China (CNN) — Li Yunxia wipes away tears as rescue crews dig through the ruins of a kindergarten class that has buried her only child — a 5-year-old boy.

Other parents wail as soldiers in blue masks trudge through the mud, hauling bodies from the rubble on stretchers.

“Children were screaming, but I couldn’t hear my son’s voice,” she says, sobbing.

This grim ritual repeated itself Thursday across southwestern China, as thousands of mothers and fathers await news about their sons and daughters.

The death toll from Monday’s massive earthquake could be as high as 50,000, according to state-run media.

The grief is compounded in many cases by a Chinese policy that limits most couples to one child, a measure meant to control explosive population growth.

As a result of the one-child policy, the quake — already responsible for at least 15,000 deaths — is producing another tragic aftershock:

Not only must thousands of parents suddenly cope with the loss of a child, but many must cope with the loss of their only child.

China’s population minister recently praised the one-child rule, which dates to 1979, saying it has prevented 400 million children from being born.

Some wealthy families ignore the order, have more children and pay a $1,000 fine. In rural areas — like earthquake-devastated Sichuan province — families can petition for an additional child, but there’s no guarantee the authorities will approve the request — they usually don’t.

That reality has cast parents like Li into an agonizing limbo — waiting to discover whether their only child is alive or dead.

Thousands of children were in class when the temblor hit Monday afternoon. Many of their schools collapsed on top of them.

In Dujiangyan City, more than 300 students were feared dead when Juyuan Middle School collapsed with 900 students inside. A similar number died at the city’s Xiang’e Middle School.

Now parents cluster outside collapsed school buildings, held back by soldiers in some cases as rescue crews search for signs of life.

“Which grade are you in?” a rescuer asks a trapped child in Beichuan County.

“Grade 2,” comes the answer.

“Hang on for a while,” he says. “We are figuring out ways to rescue you.”

The child is pulled from the rubble a short time later.

For every child saved, though, many more are lost.

Many are missing at a middle school in the city of Qingchuan. The scene is devastating at Juyuan Middle School, where sorrow seems endless.

“There were screaming parents, and as the bodies would come out they were trying to identify whether it was their child or not,” said Jamil Anderlini of London’s Financial Times. “And once they — the parents — realized it was their child, obviously they collapsed in grief.”

Very young primary school children to have stomachs stapled during obesity epidemic

Obesity crisis ‘will lead to children having their stomachs stapled’

Telegraph |May 16, 2008

By Nigel Bunyan

Primary school children could soon be undergoing stomach-stapling surgery as Britain’s obesity epidemic worsens, a senior medical director has warned.

Steve Ryan, of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, said “significant numbers” of children aged two and three were being classed as obese. Conditions normally seen in middle age, such as Type 2 diabetes and sleep apnoea, were increasingly common among teenagers, he warned.

Mr Ryan said it is was “almost certain” that surgeons will have to staple children’s stomachs within a few years.

At present, weight-loss surgery is only performed on adults when all other methods have failed. Although the procedure can lead to complications, Dr Ryan believes that for some children it will prove the best option.

“In the not too distant future I think we will be starting to consider surgery on children who are grossly overweight,” he said. “In adults it is one of the things that can be very effective indeed, but it is a drastic step.

“Clearly you are not going to dive in and do that for children without a lot of careful consideration, but it would be an option. We have not performed any procedures yet, but a hospital like this one would probably be asked to. I would say it is almost certain.”

Dr Ryan said the number of overweight children coming to Alder Hey from the surrounding area had risen dramatically in the past decade.

“There are more and more overweight children, and significant numbers of these are obese from a very young age – two to three years old,” he said. “When I was a paediatrician starting out in 1991 there were very few children who were overweight, but that has changed and we are starting to see complications resulting from this.”

Of the increasing number of cases of Type 2 diabetes in children, Mr Ryan said: “It is hugely common in people over 50 but we are starting to see it in teenagers. It is a huge worry because when I started it just didn’t happen.”

He added: “We are also starting to see breathing difficulties in overweight children. They are suffering from conditions that usually only affect adults, such as sleep apnoea, which requires sufferers to wear a mask over their nose or mouth at night.

“For the first time, we are having to give these masks to children. It is here and we are having to deal with it.”