Science in Science-Fiction: Exoskeletons

Posted on Monday, September 14th, 2015 at 01:05

I thought it was about time to start up my Science in Science-Fiction posts again (they still get more visitors than my world-building posts — even if they don’t get many comments these days). So how to bring the series back? Well I gave it some thought and decided that one of the most interesting things happening these days are Exoskeletons.

What are Exoskeletons?

Literally translated the word means outer-skeleton, as opposed to the Endoskeleton that we vertebrates have inside our flesh, an Exoskeleton goes on the outside of flesh. In my steampunk Novel “Ironmaster & Other Tales” I gave characters that lived on the moon and other low-gravity colonies ‘Cogsuits’ to help them get around on higher gravity worlds, and the armed forces have access to huge weaponised versions. Like the one that appears in this story: 

The cover of a sequel

That’s not a mech, that’s a Korean Battle suit, about to tear into Government house in Hong-Kong.


The First Exoskeletons (Crustaceans)

As usual with almost any good idea, nature got there first. Millions of years before we got on the scene, nature decided to wrap squishy flesh in hard Chitin armour. The flesh on the inside was able to pull and push the hard armour around, until evolution had made an armoured Arthropods and worms. As it turned out it was a great design for getting out of the water too. The hard shell could be modified to keep the insides from drying out, and after some modifications that were initially freshwater adaptations, crustaceans adapted to the land (at least partially).

Coconut Crabs from Wikipedia

Fortunately Coconut Crabs don’t eat meat or leap out of trees to attack us.

In fact it was so successful that the crustaceans cousins Arachnids pretty much permanently left the water, and the insects followed too (although a number of insects still have an aquatic freshwater nymph or larval stage).

Plate Armour

Image of field or tournament plate armour

And they checked out that articulation… and learned a thing or two

Millions of years later some bright spark noticed that humans tend to keep squishy bits on the outside, and if we wanted we could used armour to protect our organs. The Romans perfected segmentata an armour made of segmented, flexible bands of armour around flexible human flesh. However, it wasn’t until the Middle-Ages that plate armour made of steel reached the level of ability that seemed to match the early Arthropods. In fact some armour designs were so well designed that when NASA wanted to build spacesuits they took a long look at those old armour designs.

Science-Fiction Armour

There was always a problem with Metal Plate Armour, it was heavy, and slowed the knights that wore them down (although not as much as you might imagine). Still though, the idea occurred to a few people that, if the plates had motors, then a knight could be stronger. His armour could be thicker still, he could be an armoured tank. This sort of thinking still goes on today, just now with multi-million dollar research grants, but we’ll get to that later. I’m pretty sure that the first example of this kind of powered armour is actually as old as alien invasions in science-fiction. Which either means the Greeks did it first, the ancient astronauts really did flit around the Neolithic leaving hints in religions around the world with their creatures of brass, or…

The Martian Fighting Machine

The bear-sized haemovore brain-molluscs from Mars that H.G. Wells invented (and who have a cameo in Ironmaster & Other Tales) constructed huge tripod armoured fighting machines, that behaved like organic bodies made from metal. To quote the master himself:

Later renditions may be less cartoonish, but these images are the closest to what Wells wrote.

Later renditions may be less cartoonish, but these images are the closest to what Wells wrote.

Were they intelligent mechanisms? Such a thing I felt was impossible. Or did a Martian sit within each, ruling, directing, using, much as a man’s brain sits and rules in his body? I began to compare the things to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal. – HG Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’

As far as I can tell these are the first Exoskeletons in fiction (magic armour aside — which aren’t nearly as common in mythology as you might think from D&D). For quite sometime these were the only mechanical exoskeletons anyone had thought of.


A forgotten aside in the history of Exoskeletons, Creakyfoot was an agricultural exoskeleton, eight-feet tall that was described as a robot suit. The Robot mimicking the actions of the pilot inside. Created in 1953 in a story by British Author E.R. James that I found references to here making it an otherwise forgotten part of this history.

Mobile Infantry and Powered Armour

It was the Dean of science-fiction, Robert Heinlein who refined the idea of the Fighting Machine into something a little more humanoid, without making it into farm machinery.

Starship Troopers cover showing Powered Armoured Troopers

This cover from the board game gives the right impression

In his epic satire of all things military “Starship Troopers”, Heinlein put forwards the idea of a powered Exoskeleton that was able to jump on rocket jets, survive in space and casually launch battlefield nukes around the place (as well as a host of other technologies to make the Mobile Infantry a space force to be reckoned with). All completely ignored in the movie version, of course, because

American Prototypes

Hardiman prototype exoskeleton

The original Hardiman prototype

During the fifties Exoskeletons were mostly the realm of science-fiction, but engineers, inspired in part by the stories they were reading (as well as improvements in robotics and the burgeoning science of cybernetics) meant that some primitive Exoskeletons began to appear in universities and engineering firms in the States. The most famous and successful example from the sixties was the General Electrics Hardiman-I Exoskeleton. The acronym standing, perhaps, for Human Augmentation Research and Development Investigation MANipulator, although no one seems exactly certain. The Hardiman was not a complete success, only one of the arms ever really worked properly and the machine was only just able to lift its own weight. It looked a lot more impressive than it ever actually was. A little later, there was some 1971 Walking machines, to help the disabled, but they never really caught on. As we’ll get to a little later you’ll see that this is an idea that has finally reached fruition.

Giant Robos

I was a child of the 70s and like most of my generation, when I think about Exoskeletons my mind tends to go to things like this…

Still from Japanese Anime Mobile Suit Gundam

Although to be fair, when I think about a lot of things that happens.

The fact is that for the longest time when I was growing up the best cartoons in the world came from Japan and tended to have jet-planes that could transform into giant humanoid – not robots, but Robos, or Exoskeletons. Later great cartoons called them other things, it didn’t matter, the Exoskeletons got bigger, more ridiculous, and that seemed to be the way they had to go. Bigger guns, bigger battles. There were so many designs and types that whole sites could be created on the differences between Meks, Gundams, Robotechs, Diaclones, Mecha, Exos, Labors, Zoids, and so on. But I’ll leave that for someone who speaks Japanese… I couldn’t do it justice having only watched dubbed and subbed versions of the Japanese originals. It was a golden age, but then someone had to go and spoil it.

Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers

or Super Sentai in Japan originally

Maybe it was just inevitable, the eventual love child of too many Gojira monster costumes lying around and out of control Robotech, but the original Japanese TV show Super Sentai was reworked by canny American TV execs, the special effects shots were lifted from the original and new stories were shot with an American cast a few years after the originals. Suddenly every kid in the western world had seen a Mecha, as the Power Rangers used to summon and fight in one (that looked suspiciously like a man in a robot suit and were called Zords for no reason I can understand). Meanwhile, elsewhere in what was once a small town called Hollywood… In 1986 James Cameron decided that the end of his Alien sequel needed a giant Alien queen and someway to let Ripley fight it. Enter from behind a door…

Sigourney weaver in a power -loader suit

Just right for kicking Xeno-regal ovipositor out of airlocks.

In the final battle of the movie Ripley uses the Power-loader to fight and ultimately defeat the Alien queen. In various video games and extended universe stuff, it turns out that the Colonial Marines had a weaponised version of this Exoskeleton, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Even if they hadn’t thought of it before the events of Aliens would have given a lot of people pause for thought.

Lift more, fight more

Modern military Exoskeletons are quite advanced now, a number of companies have been working on these things for a while, because well what superpower doesn’t want super-soldiers, truly all-terrain weapons platforms, and battlefield presence amplification. The top american examples at the moment are undoubtedly the XOS 2 made by Raytheon and the HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier). Although mostly what they seem to be developing them for is carrying more (more ammo, more equipment, and more ammo). So far they don’t seem to be adding much in the way of external armour, and while it is an Exoskeleton, it’s a lot closer to the Powered Loader than a Mech. But the fact is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is definitely pushing the technology into the public eye. When the media talk about exoskeletons and strength amplifiers they never use those terms…

Image of Ironman from the MCU films

They just say Ironman suit…

It’s enough to make most people understand what they are on about. Even if the actual technology that they are developing looks a lot less protective than you’d expect for a soldier.

Cyberdyne HAL nursing exoskeleton

This exoskeleton is definitely not military ready honestly…

Military applications are not the only uses that Exoskeletons are being put to, Japan which still is banned from developing actual weapons platforms (because they lost World War 2) has worked out that Exoskeletons might be very useful for nurses and care-workers, as well as this nursing Exoskeleton they plan to build a larger commercial unit to replace forklift trucks eventually in warehouses. I guess as well as being fans of the Terminator franchise (the company is called Cyberdyne) they are also fans of the Patlabor anime series, where Mechs called Labors are used for all sorts of construction and commercial purposes, to the point that in order to fight criminals who use Labors it becomes necessary to produce police Patrol Labors (the Patlabors of the title). The fact is that Exoskeletons are going to become ubiquitous sometime quite soon. People will use them for work, any job that involves heavy lifting will benefit and we’ll see development of lighter, faster technologies, there will undoubtedly be sports models, since any new technology seems to get the public excited by having competitions and races, military models (which are already appearing, and later will include armour, weapons and NBC capabilities), commercial loaders (and perhaps mining, logging and even road repair versions) and undoubtedly there will be uses that even futurists like me just can’t see.