Navy Uses Exoskeletons for Shipyard Maintenance

Navy ExoskeletonThe Pentagon has acquired two high-tech exoskeletons designed to make it much easier for Navy shipyard workers to suspend and hold heavy hand-held tools such as riveters, grinders and sanders.

The so-called FORTIS exoskeleton is an unpowered, lightweight exoskeleton that increases an operator’s strength and endurance by transferring the weight of heavy loads from the user’s body directly to the ground, said Adam Miller, director of new initiatives at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

“We’ve been working on exoskeleton technology for over five years. There is interest in enhancing productivity and reducing the time a ship might need to be maintained,” he said.

Alongside FORTIS, the Navy is also examining and testing other domestic exoskeleton developers equipment, Suzanna Brugler, a Navy spokeswoman said.

U.S. Special Operation Command has also started researching the potential use of exoskeletons for the command’s planned Iron Man suit that would provide operators with super human strength on the battlefield. This is a separate program but an example of exoskeletons filtering into day-to-day military operations.

The units are manufactured at a Lockheed facility in Orlando, Fla. The purchase follows a two-year developmental assessment period with the exoskeletons at the Navy ship yards in Norfolk, Va., and Puget Sound, Wash.

“Ship maintenance often requires use of heavy tools, such as grinders, riveters or sandblasters,” said Miller.  “Those tools take a toll on operators due to the tools’ weight and the tight areas where they are sometimes used. By wearing the FORTIS exoskeleton, operators can hold the weight of those heavy tools for extended periods of time with reduced fatigue.”

With the FORTIS exoskeleton, a shipyard worker can hold a 30-pound piece of equipment in place for much longer periods of time without needing to rest, greatly increasing productivity, he added.

“Think about holding 30 pounds extended away from your body. Most people cannot do that for three minutes. With an exoskeleton, they just have their hands out in front of them so they can hold the tool for much longer periods of time. They might be able to work 15 to 20 minutes before needing a rest. You can hold your arms out a lot longer than you can hold out 30 pounds,” Miller said.

The FORTIS purchase follows a two-year developmental period where various exoskeleton technologies were assessed at Navy shipyards in Norfolk, Va. and Puget Sound, Wash., Navy officials said.

“The Navy plans to introduce exoskeleton technology in Naval shipyards, first with a focus on ship maintenance and repair work. As the Navy gains experience with exoskeleton technology, it plans on developing enhanced exoskeletons that will be employed in other challenging work environments beyond Naval shipyards,” said Michael Wade, engineer with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.

The 30-pound FORTIS, which is designed ergonomically to move with the body of the operator, is configured to shift the weight of the tool from the person to the exoskeleton itself.

“When a worker is riveting, he is not holding the riveter. He is operating it as if his hands are out in front of him holding nothing,” Miller explained. “Everything is mechanically connected down to the ground – the person has the mobility of a person who did not have the exoskeleton but his productivity is enhanced because he is not carrying or holding the load. Productivity is increased 2 to 20 times.”

FORTIS could be used for riveting, grinding, sanding or any instance wherein a worker needs to hold or suspend a heavy tool while working.

The exoskeletons were purchased by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Navy through the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a Michigan-based technology non-profit organization.  The exoskeletons being evaluated by the Navy will form the basis of a special test and evaluation period slated to run from September of this year through February of 2015, Miller and Navy officials added.

Wade said the exoskeleton reduces worker fatigue, improves worker productivity and mitigates strain-related injuries.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Rod

    That is some clever engineering to not require power. I am excited to see this adapted for civilian use- assembly lines, construction, etc.

  • rtsy

    Finally an example of what realistic exoskeleton design can produce. You can do a lot with todays tech when you aren’t trying to carry hundreds of pounds of equipment for hours at a time.

    In fact, I think this type of exoskeleton could cover the minimum requirements of the TALOS program. That is to say it could hold some armor instead of a power tool.

  • Jeff

    The movie industry had this since 1976, called Steadicam. May not have transferred the weight to the ground, but allowed the camera man to carry and operate the heavy camera (35-50 lbs) for long periods of time. They spent two years on development and ended up paying for two units? What do you think the over/under is on cost? I’m guessing with development and two prototype units, it ran into several million dollars. Steadicam systems run $700-$12,000. Give me a couple months or so to add legs and we’re done, mostly COTS. I’ll pocket the rest and take a vacation.

    Typical inefficiencies of any government program. But hey, at least now we can have more women in the military if they don’t have to lift heavy things.

    • steve

      Your post reflects your total ignorance of the subject, article, and things in general.

      • oblatt22

        Having seen all the iron man movies is hardly a qualification

      • voodkokk

        Just because you have not heard of Steadicam or any other SteadX doesn’t mean that someone other than yourself is ignorant. We know that the government pays premium price for any innovation.

        • steve

          I’ve known about Steadycams since Steadycams came out. You can’t just grab COTS parts, bolt them on and have it transfer the weight to the ground. Well, maybe you could get them from Lockheed.

          There’s a lot of engineering to be done to make this work, then you need to test it to make sure it isn’t going to hurt somebody over the long term. Cameras don’t shake the bejeezus out of the rigs like powertools can, etc. The list of potential issues goes on and on. But, having a device like this that makes a fatiguing job a lot easier is a great thing to have. I think it’s really cool they have one this far developed. Sorry if I think armchair engineers and critics should suck it.

  • demophilus

    There’s a company called Equipois that has been making this sort of equipment for this sort of application for some time. Maybe they’re one of the other developers mentioned in the article. Either way, this smells a little like a LockMart PR piece…

    • Mitch S.

      Tidbits of interesting info like this are a prime reason I visit this site.
      I wasn’t aware of Equipois.
      As you mentioned, the Navy Rep did say “Alongside FORTIS, the Navy is also examining and testing other domestic exoskeleton developers equipment, “.
      Hopefully politics won’t favor the most expensive solution.
      I think of what it would cost us to have NASA/Lock-Mart or NASA/Boeing resupply the space station compared to what it costs to have Space-X do it.

    • TXMaverick

      I’m so sick of all you LM haters that don’t know a d@mn thing about what you are talking about. HULC, which later became MANTIS then FORTIS as it was adapted to particular tasks, was developed entirely on LM IR&D, NOT tax payer $$$. The Navy contract was to buy 2 units for eval.

  • jsallison

    Now adapt it to underway replenishment of VLS arrays. I can’t believe they designed those to be reloaded in port. Talk about one trick ponies.

  • meengrn

    Looks like a first order lever with a smart (human) fulcrum applying precise forces to the load arm. Archimedes would be pleased.

  • oblatt22

    There is a whole industry out there that takes old civilian stuff attached rubber bumpers spray paints it cammo and sells it at 10 times the price to the pentagon.

    The first thing any investor is going to ask about companies such as this is who are the owners friends with ? what buddies do they have in the pentagon ?

  • Christopher

    Rivet guns? I certainly hope the Navy has not gone back to riveting its ships together…

  • Dennis

    Before we get too excited about domestically produced exoskeletons allowing workers hold 30lbs, be aware Daewoo Shipbuilding in Korea is testing exoskeleton suits allowing workers to carry pieces up to 100kg.

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