Training underway in Squamish, B.C., for giant mechanized exoskeleton pilots

September 4, 2020
Training underway in Squamish, B.C., for giant mechanized exoskeleton pilots

A massive, white 4,000 kg contraption jerks and tilts, its electric motor whining as it pumps fluid into eight hydraulic cylinders moving the legs. The operator of Prosthesis, as it’s called, is new at this — it’s his second day at the complicated controls, and the goal is still just to make it walk.

So far, trainee Chris Livingston mostly manages to kick up dust, dig ruts in the dirt, and get a surprisingly strenuous workout.

Prosthesis is a project led by Jonathan Tippett, co-founder of the company created to build it, Furrion Exo-Bionics.

It’s a mechanized exoskeleton — a machine controlled by the movements of its pilot, strapped into a harness at its centre.

WATCH: Prosthesis stretches its legs at a Squamish Valley testing site

Prosthesis, an enormous four-legged mechanized exoskeleton, is being tested in Squamish, B.C., while donors to the project get the chance to operate it. 2:10

“If I was a weight-lifter, I don’t think it would help me in this, in fact, somebody who does yoga would probably be a lot better at this,” said Livingston, who said a drummer’s coordination would also help.

“It’s a far more physical element than I thought it would be.”

He’s the first person to undergo a training program, after making the maximum donation to the fundraising campaign for the Prosthesis project: $13,000.

“When it came up, I immediately was like, ‘I’d love to support this and help out any way I can,'” said Livingston on Wednesday at a testing site in the Squamish Valley.

Chris Livingston, a Vancouver-based YouTuber, donated $13,000 to the project, earning him the opportunity to train as a Prosthesis pilot for three days. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Tippett calls the project a “celebration of human skill.”

“This is a dream I’ve had for about 14 years,” he said. “It’s intended to create a new experience for humans.”

The project hasn’t been an easy one, and there were times when it didn’t seem financially possible to continue — but it did.

“After four years in field trials, the machine has finally reached the point where it’s safe, and reliable and learnable,” said Tippett, adding that it took two years just to get it walking.

Operating the machine is “more intuitive” than trainee Livingston expected, but still a huge challenge. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He couldn’t estimate how much the Prosthesis project has cost so far; Tippett has benefited from lots of volunteers, donations, and years of his own labour, as he worked as a biomedical engineer on the side until 2014.

“We estimate that we could reproduce this machine for $1.5 to $2 million,” he said. “The next iterations will be smaller, lighter, faster.”

The massive scale of Prosthesis has landed the machine a Guinness world record for the largest tetrapod exoskeleton, but its creator says the size was just a result of designing one piece after another, starting with the pilot’s controls in the middle.

‘It’s a whole other world’

For Livingston, a YouTuber based in Vancouver, piloting a mechanized exoskeleton seemed like something limited to the imagination, before he learned about this project.

“When I was a little kid, my brother and I would pretend we were mech pilots,” he said. “When you get into the controls, all of a sudden it’s a whole other world.”

According to the Prosthesis fundraising page, three of the four available $13,000 training sessions on offer have already been taken.

Tippett sits atop the massive machine. He says the project has taken 14 years to get to the point where people can safely and reliably be taught how to pilot the mechanized exoskeleton. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Tippett is hoping to be able to keep moving the project toward his ultimate vision: a mech — or mechanized exoskeleton — racing league.

“The master plan is an international sports league, where you have multiple world class athletes going head-to-head over complex, technical obstacle courses, wearing these giant powered all terrain mech suits,” he said.

The dream will rely entirely on constant fundraising efforts, but Tippett says he hopes to have two machines that can be raced head-to-head in about three years.

In the meantime, he’ll keep trying to rustle up the funds, refining the machine he’s built and training people to operate it.

Tippett wipes hydraulic fluid off the machine in hopes of finding the source of a small leak. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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