exoskeletons

Iron Man in the factory

January 8, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Defense research into bionic suits is creating a private-sector market for so-called exoskeletons.

By Anne VanderMey, reporter

bionic-suitsFORTUNE -- Iron Man's appeal is obvious. Since the superhero's debut in 1963, so-called exoskeletons, mechanical outfits that augment human abilities, have been a fixture of sci-fi. Now business is working on its own bionic suits. Jump-started by military research, commercial exoskeletons are near.

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Lockheed Martin's (LMT) HULC and MANTIS prototypes, which look like leg braces and a large backpack, can significantly increase an individual's strength. The MANTIS is slated for sale later this year and can make wielding heavy equipment in a factory or shipyard nearly effortless. California-based Ekso Bionics, meanwhile, employs exoskeleton technology to make suits for paraplegics that allow some disabled people to walk for the first time. It says it has sold 29 of the $130,000 devices worldwide so far. The market for such technology is pegged at some $10 billion over the next 10 years.

The biggest problem? Power. Most exoskeletons are battery operated, so they don't have much range yet. Still, MIT professor Hugh Herr is convinced. "The era that we're now entering is the bionic age," he says.

This story is from the January 14, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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