In ‘Elysium,’ Matt Damon is fitted with an exoskeleton that’s not all sci-fi

Stephanie Blomkamp - Thanks to a surgically implanted exoskeleton, Max (played by Matt Damon in “Elysium”) stays in the thick of the action despite a debilitating illness.

Incredible? No, futuristic exoskeleton is part HULC.

In the science fiction movie “Elysium,” Max (played by Matt Damon) falls ill. To get to the space station Elysium, where he could be cured, Max allows himself to be attached to an exoskeleton, a sort of body armor that augments his strength and speed as his illness grows increasingly debilitating.

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That isn’t too different from how real-life exoskeletons work, experts say. In fact, the exoskeleton in “Elysium” was at least partially modeled after the HULC, or Human Universal Load Carrier, designed for military use by Ekso Bionics and Lockheed Martin.

The HULC consists of leg and back braces with motors at the knees and hips. It’s designed to let wearers haul up to 200 pounds of extra weight and redirect the force of that weight into the ground.

Scanners in the HULC monitor the wearer’s movements so that the device complements the wearer’s action. For example, each time the wearer takes a step, the HULC’s leg motors have to move fast enough that they don’t impede the wearer’s stride. But if the suit moves too fast, it could overextend the wearer’s limbs and cause serious injury.

The exoskeleton in “Elysium” differs from the HULC in important ways. For one, the HULC doesn’t include arm braces. And according to Nathan Harding, co-founder and chief executive of Ekso Bionics, the movie’s exoskeleton appears to work in a way that resembles a medical exoskeleton more than a military one.

“With a military exoskeleton, you’re trying to carry external loads, trying to help people do things” that a normal human wouldn’t be capable of doing.

Medical exoskeletons, by contrast, are designed to help people with muscular impairments, such as paraplegia, to regain some of their mobility. In those cases, the device does not augment a person’s muscles but instead compensates for them or even replaces them entirely.

That’s not to say the two technologies should not be mixed; Ekso Bionics is developing exoskeletons for people who can move only one side of their body, such as stroke survivors.

In these types of suits, one side would be more military-like, in that it would augment the user’s functionality, while the other side would be medical.

“Elysium” diverges from modern exoskeleton technology in another significant way: Max undergoes an operation in which parts of the exoskeleton, including a brain-computer connection, are drilled into his body.

“That’s kind of a different approach than is currently going on in an exoskeleton,” Harding said.

“Different” is putting it mildly. Aside from the bodily injury and risk of infection that such surgery would entail, drilling into a human body would contradict the exoskeleton’s purpose, Harding said.

Exoskeletons “are designed to provide an alternative that . . . basically takes the load off the infrastructure of humans,” he said. Attaching an exoskeleton directly to a person’s skeleton, he explained, would ensure that any weight he carried remained on his body, thus decreasing the device’s usefulness.

The film gives one reason for its surgically implanted exoskeleton: The device interfaces with the wearer’s brain. “Hook this into your nervous system, and it’ll make you strong as a droid,” one character says as he prepares to operate on Max.

Surgically installed exoskeletons are “intriguing,” Harding said, “but I don’t see that part of it being useful.”

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