Between Black Panther & Iron Man, Whose Exosuit Would You Choose?

Black Panther won an Oscar in the Best Costume Design category, but its exosuit is not just the stuff of fiction.

5 min read
Between Black Panther & Iron Man, Whose Exosuit Would You Choose?

Black Panther has made Academy Award history with its Oscar wins. And now the CIA is tweeting about Wakandan technology, and how close it is to real-life tech.

So, the question on my mind is: how soon can I get my hands on a Black Panther-esque exosuit? Because, you know, I need a way to defend myself when someone tries to wake me up. Seriously. Don’t wake me up.

The Daleks | Doctor Who
Source: BBC
Artist Dylan Cole for Avatar (2009)  

Why the Black Panther Exosuit Stands Out

Exoskeletons and exosuits. We've seen them in the form of the Amplified Mobility Platform in James Cameron's Avatar, we've seen them in Doctor Who, where villainous Daleks don what appear to be functional pox ridden shells (do you even know what those bumps do, 'cause I certainly don't), and we've seen them on various Marvel superheroes. Arguably, the most instantly recognisable exoskeleton among popular culture enthusiasts thus far here in India was that of Iron Man. I’m guessing the Black Panther exosuit is now a close second, if it hasn’t surpassed Iron Man’s already.

What I find particularly awesome about the Black Panther exosuit is that it can store energy from kinetic impacts, which can later be released to beat up bad guys. That’s actually not very different in theory from piezoelectric materials, which can convert mechanical vibrations to electricity. Who wouldn’t want to be many times stronger while wearing something relatively light?

Indian Cosplayer Ankit Singh, aka ‘India’s first Iron Man’
Indian Cosplayer Gaurav Thakur as Black Panther 

Exosuits Aren’t Just Fiction

Now, for Iron Man. Many versions of Iron Man’s iconic suit have appeared over the years, each with different functionalities. Take the epically huge Hulkbuster from Avengers: Age of Ultron for instance. It's a modular suit, specifically made for – you guessed it – restraining the Hulk.

The interesting thing is that suits like these aren’t solely fiction.

Avengers: The Age of Ultron
Source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures 

Granted, with this technology you can't (yet?) fly around the world or exterminate men in bowties. However, much in the way that an Iron Man suit addresses specific purposes, these real suits or parts of suits target problem areas. While an obvious avenue is that of military use – which is also the general trend in science fiction – this technology is being developed for applications in the medical and manufacturing industries.

Exosuit Tech at Work in the Medical World

Let's take a closer look at some, shall we?

Imagine being told that you will never walk again. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to walk, paralysis is an extremely scary prospect. Yet, excitingly, rapid strides are being made in the world of robotics to address mobility disorders. One such group at the forefront of this research is Ekso Bionics, previously known as Berkeley Bionics from the Berkeley Robotics & Human Engineering Laboratory. They've developed eLEGS for individuals who cannot walk. Think about how wonderful it would be if these are further developed to be pocket-friendly, mass produced, and globally supplied to those in need.


Exosuit Tech At Work in the Manufacturing Industry

There are some who encounter hazards at work, and no, I don't mean the threat of getting burned by a clumsy intern serving coffee. Those who work in the manufacturing industry often face high risks of injury because of the machines they need to operate. Sarcos Robotics, a leading global technological company, largely focuses on providing dexterous robotic systems to minimise injury risks and boost performance in the work place. Their latest, marked as 'coming soon' on their website, is the Guardian XO.

From their description of the XO:

“Based on an early prototype which was recognized as one of the world's top innovations, the Guardian™ XO robot is a powered, untethered, industrial exoskeleton suit that improves human strength and endurance without restricting the operator’s freedom of movement. Born of a fundamental need to work more efficiently while preventing injury, the Guardian™ XO robot is the perfect synergy of man and machine and will revolutionize the way work gets done.”

Exosuit Tech: Not Just for the Big Guys

Now, the development of exoskeleton technology isn't only the interest of big entities. In early 2018, a group from the start-up Amplius, took one giant step closer to creating their version of the Iron Man suit, that they claim will break the speed of sound. At the Wearable Robotics Association Innovation Challenge 2018, they revealed the hydromuscle, claiming that it has the highest strength to weight ratio of any actuator on this planet. It's basically an incredibly flexible exo-muscle. Moreover, they have plans for a fully functional suit, equipped with a machine learning head-up display, flight capabilities, and much more. Their catch phrase is literally "Going Beyond Human", so I don't know about you, but I'm totally signing up for the beta tests.

Last but not least, my favourite: a badass Russian neuroscientist from Moscow named Olga Levitskaya created a cyber suit, which initially started out as a project to overcome nerve damage in her hand. When she successfully built a working glove, she decided to keep going and made – the Whole. Damn. Suit. She calls it an ‘exoneurosystem’ because it involves an external brain built with artificial intelligence:

Can you see why this is my favourite?

I could go on, and these examples are just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the point. The world of wearable robotics is fast bridging the gap between fictional exoskeletons and real life, though the jury is still out about how far their potential extends. I'm an optimist, so I'd like to believe that exoskeletons and exosuits will eventually be made that will give T’Challa and Tony Stark a run for their money.

Till then, a question for you: if they were real, whose suit would you choose between Iron Man and Black Panther?

My answer? Wakanda forever.

(Radha recently submitted a PhD thesis in theoretical quantum physics in India. As a creative outlet, she runs a small design studio called Sploosh Design (SplooshDesign.Com), a blog called Fantasy Science (Fantasy-Science.Com), and consults on sci-fi screenplays /books. In her free time, she irritates her three cats. Bug her on Twitter: @RadhaPyari. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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