From Steve Austin’s bionic implants that enhanced his speed, strength and vision in the 1970s hit show “The Six Million Dollar Man” to the exoskeleton that gives Iron Man superhuman strength and the power of flight, the merging of humans with machines has long been the fare of science fiction. But these fantasies are quickly becoming realities that will profoundly change how we live and work.
A GLIMPSE AT THE FUTURE
Machines in research and development now are capable of enhancing human performance in myriad ways. Innovations range from wearable exoskeletons self-powered by the wearer’s natural movements to battery- and computer-powered robotics. The applications for machines as an extension of the human body are numerous and growing.
Already, exoskeletons are being tested for military use – not for cyborg-warfare but for much more common tasks like moving heavy machinery or artillery. The Soldier Assisted Bionic Exosuit for Resupply (SABER) is a simple, lightweight harness with straps that fit over a soldier’s uniform. Developed by the U.S. Army and Vanderbilt University, SABER allows soldiers to lift more weight with less effort, thereby reducing back injuries and pain.
Industrial exoskeletons are also in use at auto and other manufacturing plants, assisting assembly line workers to lift far more weight than they could alone or conduct overhead tasks while reducing upper body fatigue. Automobile manufacturers are also putting their robotics and engineering know-how to work in expanding exoskeletons for medical purposes. Hyundai has developed a medical exoskeleton assisting patients with spinal cord injuries to sit, stand, walk and navigate stairs. Honda has a robotic hip-knee exoskeleton being used to help knee-replacement patients expand their walking capabilities.
In fact, health care and rehabilitation are areas showing great promise in using a range of powered or self-powered exoskeletons to help care providers with lifting and moving patients – a key source of injury to EMS workers.
Other machine-human hybrids enhanced with artificial intelligence and machine learning are enabling people to regain independence. Prostheses equipped with microsensors and artificial intelligence capture biosignals from the user’s muscle contractions to learn how the user wants to move their hand and to do so automatically. Other exoskeletons use sensors attached to the user’s brain so just thinking about walking actually helps reteach the person’s brain how to walk while the exoskeleton assists with the mechanics.
REWIRING THE BRAIN
While robot firefighters aren’t replacing human ones (yet), there are fire technologies available now that supplement human strength, reduce human error and boost performance. Like with all mind-blowing advances, these technologies will require a change in thinking and cultural acceptance before they take their rightful place alongside other performance-boosting technologies that just seem normal now. Sure, you can still drive a car without power steering, but why would you when you can get the assist?
At IAFC’s 2023 International Technology Summit, IDEX Fire & Safety showcased three technologies that are already enhancing firefighters’ ability to save lives and property while improving efficiency and effectiveness.
ENHANCING HUMAN INTELLIGENCE AND SAFETY USING SMART TOOLS
“I’m not trying to create something that doesn’t exist,” said Alyson McWhorter, vice president of strategy and product at IDEX, discussing the use of IoT-enabled devices like the E3 Connect line of extrication tools and the Captium data hub that surfaces critical equipment information to a dashboard. “I’m trying to elevate something you already use today, trying to make it smarter.”
The Hurst Jaws of Life extrication tools are already the best-known, most-used tools first responders use to rescue victims, amplifying human strength with the power to cut through a vehicle frame. The cloud-connected E3 Connect line of extrication tools amplify human knowledge and tool performance by connecting critical equipment data – like angle of use, battery life and maintenance issues – to the Captium dashboard. The smart dashboard alerts humans with actionable insights so equipment issues can be resolved before they become major problems.
Whereas the Jaws of Life endow the user with superhuman strength, other tools enhance human performance by reducing focus on the tactile and increasing focus on knowledge and problem solving.
ENHANCING HUMAN PERFORMANCE BY ASSUMING ROUTINE TASKS
From the earliest inventions, the purpose of technology has been to take over some of the more-laborious tasks from humans, so humans could get more done in less time with less effort. That’s still the goal, but with the advent of computers, the internet and artificial intelligence, technology is adding to the list of benefits by also collecting and surfacing actionable information that helps keep humans more informed.
In a similar, but more consequential way, the SAM waterflow control system is revolutionizing the interaction between human and machine by taking over routine pumping tasks, while relying on trusted mechanical components to work as they always have.
By enabling the pump operator to manage the apparatus’ pump, tank, intakes and discharges from a touchscreen display, SAM takes away the need for the pump operator to be tethered to one side of the truck. Having the freedom to move around allows the pump operator to devote a share of their attention, skill and experience to doing things that humans do better – like keeping an eye on the fireground, being alert to changes in the fire dynamic and solving problems.
SAM also provides more and better information sooner, alerting the pump operator to changes in waterflow and mechanical problems, and reducing the risk of human error.
No matter how fast or experienced a pump operator is, SAM has also proven to be faster. Automated line charging and pressure selection saves up to a minute and a half in the critical first five minutes of a fire, enabling the attack crew to be more aggressive from the outset.
Similarly, SAM BOOST revolutionizes the interaction between human and machine by providing automated water flow at the nozzle. With all that information and control readily in hand, every firefighter can use both their brain and their hands to address the call.
Until firefighter robots are fully operational around the world, human firefighters need smart technologies that will enhance their abilities, strength and knowledge so they can operate with greater speed, skill and safety. These technologies that merge human abilities with machines can help deliver a safer future for firefighters and the communities they serve today.
For more information, visit IDEX Fire & Safety.