It’s about as useful as a human being — but amplified 50 times.
That’s how Canadian engineer Jonathan Tippett describes his invention: Prosthesis, the world’s first fully operational mech suit — finished in early 2017 and standing 14 feet tall, weighing in at nearly 9,000 pounds with 200 horsepower, and 100 percent electric and human controlled. The all-terrain walking mech’s aim is to give humans the size and strength of giants.
“Prosthesis has no joysticks, no steering wheel, no foot pedals. It’s just 100 percent, limb-for-limb pilot control,” its website notes .
Indeed. Vancouver-based Exosapien Technologies’ — of which Tippett is the founder, CEO, and mech test pilot — Prosthesis holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s largest four-legged exoskeleton.
However, Prosthesis — and mech suits in general — isn’t just about power and crushing things. It can be used in myriad applications, from agriculture to mining and search and rescue, as well as forestry and disaster response. In addition, another use may soon be within its capabilities: a sports league. Tippett says that there will soon be a mech suit racing league, though with technology slightly different than Prosthesis.
Here is a Tech Briefs interview with Tippett — edited for clarity and length — about Prosthesis, its story, and how it works.
Tech Briefs: Where did the inspiration come from to build Prosthesis?
Tippett: What great innovation ever comes from one single inspiration? It’s been incubating for my entire life, really. I sometimes call it a mix between a dinosaur, a dune buggy, and an excavator, which were also great inspirations in my youth. But, truly, if one were to try and put a finger on the spark that lit the powder keg of creative input that I had amassed as a child and through my university and early career, it would’ve been a sculpture that I saw at Burning Man in 2003 of a pair of what looked like Tyrannosaurus Rex legs — giant dinosaur-sized, scaled legs made of car parts and tools. It was a found object art sculpture, static sculpture, cut off at the hips with a platform.
I saw these legs, and there was beautiful sculpture, had a tremendous presence and a sense of mechanical life to it, but it was static. And I thought, ‘Those are some really cool mechanized legs; I’m an engineer, I could make those move. That would be amazing.’ And the fact that it had a platform made me think of putting myself on it. And I was like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to sit on that platform and make those legs move?’ But not with a joystick, because I don’t come from a robotics perspective; I come from a human experience perspective. So I thought, ‘How could I make those legs move with my body, with my legs, with an exoskeletal interface.’ Well, that would be really challenging, so maybe make it a quadruped, and the rest is history.
Tech Briefs: You said it was finished in early 2017. How long was the process from the start to 2017?
Tippett: [The Burning Man revelation] was 2003; it just kind of incubated in my head and was displaced by all sorts of other projects and things going on. Then in 2006 I drew my first sketch of what was at the time called the Green Gorilla. It was a sort of misguided notion that I got pulled into because it was a quadrupedal walking machine. But between 2006 and 2010 I started looking into the engineering and figuring out how we could amplify human skill, how we could amplify human strength with high fidelity and precision and as simply as possible. So by 2010 I had the general scope and scale of the project in my mind, and I began building the first prototype to develop the actual foundational technology that led to the founding of the company.
In 2015, I developed the alpha leg on my own dime with my own funding and a lot of support from an educational charity called the eatART Foundation, which was aimed at inspiring people to use STEM technology in creative ways, particularly in the evangelizing of electric power adoption. So we would build sort of large-scale, electric-power interactive sculptures. We’d take them to schools and science fairs and get kids stoked about STEM tech and about electric power systems.
You can look up the Mondo Spider, which was one of the projects that distracted me from this, otherwise I would’ve started sooner. It’s a 2,000-pound electric walking spider that we built with a crew. That project formed the eatART Foundation, which created this incubational community that allowed me to develop what I called the alpha leg, which was this first prototype leg between 2010 and 2015. Then, in 2015, I found my first investor, and that enabled me to form the company formally, quit my day job as a biomedical engineer, and bring on a few core, extremely talented friends and colleagues to build Prosthesis itself over the course of 2016. 2016 was the build year, craziest year of my life, so far, and CES 2017 was the unveiling.
Tech Briefs: Now, while building, what were the biggest technical challenges you faced?
Tippett: I’m glad you said technical, because the biggest challenge is always money, of course, for an engineer — the other stuff’s fun.
The biggest technical challenges were high fidelity, like developing a motion control system that picked up the user’s movements and amplified them this much. There’s a lot of exoskeletal technology and remotely operated limbs and actuators that use electric drives. They’re doing hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of force here and there. But I had to develop a system that was going to throw a 4,000-kilogram [about 8,818 pounds] machine around like a T-Rex that can run at 27 kilometers an hour. That was the goal. So I was using hundreds of horsepower hydraulic actuators — the state-of-the-art hydraulic motion control systems just did not serve that. They weren’t even seeking to accomplish the same relationship between operator and machine.
We did this under the advisement of a very talented and experienced applications engineer who was coming from the industrial hydraulic controls world — and, with the best of intentions, set us on a very erroneous path because neither we nor he understood the relationship that was necessary to create a sports machine. Not that sports is the only application for a machine that a human can balance and feel.
We spent about two years, between 2017 and 2019, trying to get this state-of-the-art motion control working, and the state-of-the-art was just not going cut it. So after two years of getting experience in hydraulics — firsthand, I had the theory from my school, but I really needed to pull some wrenches and blow some hoses and experience viscerally what the valves did. ‘How did it feel to have this valve setting like this?’ Because, at the end of the day, with the human in the loop of the control system, how it feels is super important. You can’t just put performance metrics on it and then optimize. You have to get in it, pilot it, and get multiple people in it. Is that too jittery? Does it need to be more responsive? Is it too exhausting?
I also developed skill as a pilot because the machine was so unique, and because I was in it, there needed to be a certain degree of familiarity to even evaluate what the engineering work was doing — if it was going in the right direction. This is no longer the case because the machine is over that hump. But at some point, around 2019, we kind of threw a lot of conventional wisdom out the door and did something in direct contradiction of the applications engineer’s advice. ‘That’ll never work. It’s crazy. It will go totally unstable on you. It’s nuts.’ And I said, ‘No, don’t worry; the human’s in the loop. I think this is going to work.’
We tried it, and that was the golden egg. That was the innovation that allowed us to get the speed and fidelity and responsiveness and have the tunability of stability versus a light touch. Then the pandemic hit. So, research and development got a little spun around, but now we’re back in the boat, back in the train, and back in the mech, so to speak. It’s good to be back in the saddle and touring again.
Tech Briefs: Would you mind explaining in very simple terms how the technology works?
Tippett: The pilot is inside the machine wearing a full-body exoskeletal interface. There’s a joint-for-joint relationship between the pilot and the machine. The machine has eight degrees of freedom, eight joints — four hips and four knees. A simple plane or motion, everything swings back and forth. Your arms control the outside legs, and your legs control the inside legs; there are four identical legs in a row. The exoskeletal interface that you’re in has sensors on it that pick up the force that you’re putting into it and amplifies that into the hydraulic system.
The other thing that the exoskeletal interface does, is it maintains physical movements with the limbs of the machine. So if the limb of the machine hits an obstacle and stops, you stop inside there. Because of that force and positional feedback, it allows you to balance the machine, it allows you to react to all of the wild uncertainties of uneven and unstable terrain. If you overdo that it becomes sort of like a bucking bronco. That’s what we’ve been fine tuning — that sweet spot between responsiveness and hyper responsiveness.
Tech Briefs: Mech racing. How’s that coming along? When do you see it beginning? Do you have interest from pilots and fans? Please talk about that.
Tippett: The sports angle is an interesting one because that’s kind of where it came from. Personally, I was into mountain biking and snowboarding, and I saw this machine as a physically engaging activity. This has always kind of been a sport idea from its inception. The applications are myriad, obviously, beyond that.
In 2019, we had a number of pro pilots, pro athletes, like Red Bull kiteboarders and X Games motocross riders, who were kind of in the wings ready to go. Monster truck driver Nicole Johnson has been [a longtime ally/friend]. She’s the first woman to ever do a backflip in a monster truck; she drove Grave Digger. She’s a big ally and fan of ours; she’s awesome. She lives in Las Vegas. She came down and visited us in 2019 when we were in the Mojave Desert testing.
So we had a bunch of leads. We had dates booked around the world, or in the works, to tour and launch excitement for it. When the pandemic hit, all of that vanished; a lot of those partners and pros took different paths. Over the course of that period, we discovered the utility of the machine. We’d rescued our own truck from the sand and the dirt — multiple times — we loaded heavy things on our flatbed with it.
We’ve gotten more interest from the utilitarian perspective in terms of investors and partners and so on. The entertainment industry has been going through the ringer with the pandemic, and television production has been exploding and collapsing, so it’s been a real challenge to launch a sort of entertainment-based business in parallel with developing the technology.
But we’ve just developed a new type of vehicle. We’re forming a partnership with Speed Vegas, which is the biggest motorsports experience park in Las Vegas, probably in the world.
We’ve developed a vehicle originally developed for deployment at Speed Vegas as an attraction there because we were looking for something that someone could just jump into and operate in five minutes. It takes three or four days to learn how to walk Prosthesis. Maybe newer ones would be a little quicker to learn, but it’s like learning to snowboard or windsurf. So from a sports adoption perspective, it was a slow process.
This new machine we’re calling the ExoQuad. It’s basically a cross between a motorcycle, a mech suit, and a quad. It’s a four-wheeled machine; it’s a little larger than a side-by-side; it has four limbs, but at the ends of the limbs are wheels. The pilot rides it like a motorbike, in a lean-forward position. The hands and feet of the pilot directly control the height of each wheel independently with the force and positional feedback that we have. So you lean the machine to turn; you’ll be able to preemptively go over obstacles; it will have the versatility and ultra-all-terrain capabilities of a mech suit, but it’ll have the speed and agility of a wheeled vehicle.
We just leaked it at 3D Experience World in February; people are going bananas for it … It’s still a good year away, but that has now become what we see as the first machine that will create the Mech Racing League. It’s not a walking/running machine, but it has that next dimension of user control and interface that take it beyond standard wheel-vehicle experience.
So, long way to answer your question, because of the inception of this new vehicle and the new pivot it’s created in our company’s focus, it might be coming sooner than we thought. These kinds of machines, you could throw [professional motorsports competitor] Travis Pastrana on it and he’ll be doing loop de loops on it probably in one afternoon. It’s going to be a much more accessible, faster, more exciting kind of form factor.
Tech Briefs: On your website, it says, ‘We see a future where mech suits are as common as ATVs.’ How far away from that do you think we are?
Tippett: Well, with the inception of the ExoQuad we’re a little bit closer than we thought. From a practical perspective, that’s a long journey. ATVs have been around for decades. They’re produced by major manufacturers with massive assembly lines.
But I think with the ExoQuad, there’s a much clearer path. It’s also the gateway mech-type technology to a full-blown mech. So next down the line is the ExoQuad. What we’ve done also, is we’ve simplified it; it only has four degrees of freedom. The wheels just go up and down, so you can’t reach out with a wheel and climb like you could if you had a full-blown articulated mech suit — but that’s next. We’re going to learn about combining wheel dynamics with mech architecture and then evolve to the mech 2.0, which will have wheels on it.
Because these machines will be available to the public at Speed Vegas in late 2024 or 2025, it’s going to open up avenues into consumer markets, recreational markets, sports markets. We’re getting a lot of interest from the military just because of the kind of access and all-terrain capabilities that this thing has. And it’s smaller, lighter, and quicker to learn than a full-blown mech suit. So maybe in five to 10 years we could start seeing ExoQuads filtering into perhaps the consumer space, the recreational space, the military space.
On the back of that adoption, we can explore more exotic applications for machines with a greater number of degrees of freedom. I’m thinking forest firefighting would be pretty wild. There are a lot of situations where bulldozers and excavators can’t get in; a fire breaks out and they send in a dozen tiny little flammable humans with shovels and chainsaws.
I’ve been going down a rabbit hole on the physical fitness requirements that those teams have. And just thinking, ‘If we could send half, a third, a quarter of the number of people with some mech suits to do the same work twice as fast and safer, that would be super exciting.’ And disaster response is sadly a growing business. Nothing climbs over a pile of rubble like a mech suit.
For more information about Prosthesis, or to learn how to operate the mech suit, visit Exosapien Technologies’ website .