Why Does Lockheed Martin Want to Put Exoskeletons on Workers?

How Lockheed and Ekso are working hard to make human beings more efficient.

Sep 1, 2014 at 12:09PM

"Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steven Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster."

If you're a child of the 1960s or early 70s, chances are, you remember those opening lines of The Six Million Dollar Man, in which injured astronaut Steve Austin was transformed, through use of technology, into a robotically enhanced superhero.

Well, here in the early days of the 2010s, Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is looking to make fiction into reality -- and build a bionic man of its own. Sort of.

Hulc
Introducing the first bionic soldier -- courtesy of Lockheed Martin. Source: Lockheed Martin.

For the past few years, Lockheed Martin has been working with a start-up robotic technology company called Ekso Bionics to develop exoskeletons for the U.S. Army -- aiming to make soldiers "better, stronger, and faster," so to speak. Lockheed Martin calls the product "HULC," and says it's a battery-powered, "completely un-tethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton that provides users with the ability to carry loads of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time and over all terrains."

Beating robotic swords into robotic plowshares
Last week, Lockheed Martin moved the ball forward on bionics with a new contract, this time for slightly less militaristic purposes -- and for the U.S. Navy rather than the Army.

Exoskeleton

Will Lockheed Martin build a 21st Century bionic man? Source: Lockheed Martin.

This time, Lockheed Martin calls its exoskeleton "FORTIS," and it's supplying two of them to the Navy to experiment with. In a significant development -- and in contrast to HULC -- FORTIS is described as "unpowered," yet still capable of boosting "an operator's strength and endurance by transferring the weight of heavy loads from the user's body directly to the ground."

The company explains that FORTIS "augments the strength and endurance of maintenance personnel in the physically demanding shipyard environment. Because its ergonomic design moves naturally with the body and allows operators to maintain flexibility, operators are not hindered by the exoskeleton. This means operators can work longer and more effectively with reduced fatigue from overuse."

A cure for gravity?
Mechanics working on Navy ships using "heavy tools, such as grinders, riveters or sandblasters" can better support the weight of their tools, even in constricted spaces where it's hard to get good leverage on the tools. Think of FORTIS as scaffolding that helps the human body stand up against the exertions of holding great weight -- a cure for gravity.

FORTIS might also be just the cure Lockheed Martin needs for its ailing revenue streams. Here's how: In the U.S. today, defense budgets are under pressure. (Not exactly breaking news.) Consulting firm Deloitte notes that globally, defense budgets have fallen in each of the past three years. Even if HULC turns out to be a great product for U.S. soldiers, there's still the problem of convincing the Pentagon to find funds to buy these robo-warrior suits.

Recognizing this, Lockheed Martin has been branching out in recent years, exploring new markets in the civilian world -- even delving into "green" technology. FORTIS looks like another step in that direction. On the one hand, Lockheed Martin is looking to book its first sales to a familiar customer -- the U.S. Navy. On the other hand, though, if the Navy's testing of FORTIS goes well, there's every possibility we could see Lockheed Martin begin marketing FORTIS to commercial manufacturers, who could also find uses for a robo-suit.

How big of a market might this be? It's still the early days in the bionics industry. (Ekso Bionics, for example, Lockheed's partner in developing this technology, only just went public, and is still traded over the counter.) But there does seem to be some interest in the technology. Ekso, for example, has already achieved a market capitalization of nearly $74 million -- not bad for an unprofitable company with less than $4 million in revenues (according to data from S&P Capital IQ). And Ekso grew its sales (off an admittedly minuscule base) by 22% in the most recent quarter.

Will Ekso ever be profitable, and how much bigger will the market for Lockheed Martin's exoskeletons grow? Stay tuned to the Fool -- we'll keep you apprised as developments happen.

Tech's advancing everywhere, from wearable robots to... wearable computers
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Www
Ekso Bionics' Exoskeleton -- the one that started it all. Source: Ekso Bionics.

Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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