Building the Real Iron Man

Posted on April 18, 2008 

Building the Real Iron Man

Real 'Iron-man-like exoskeleton suit

Steve Jacobsen’s résumé makes him seem like the Willy Wonka of robotics—his projects over the past 35 years have spanned an 80-ton mechanized dinosaur and the Bellagio casino’s fountains. But he looks more professor than madman, tall with a board-straight back and perfectly groomed gray-white hair. Before introducing the XOS, he leads me on a tour of what he only half-jokingly calls his “tunnel of terror.” It could pass for a dentist’s office from the outside, but the cavernous space is the headquarters of the company he founded as an R&D arm of the University of Utah’s college of engineering, where he taught at the time. Although he’s built robots for some notoriously tough customers—he hints that Disney is just as demanding as the military—he’s still an academic at heart. He refers to his brain as a friend he likes to go off and spend time with, and he seems to care more about solving hard problems than about the solution’s ultimate application. After skipping right past a Ping-Pong-playing humanoid ‘bot, he lingers in front of a pair of singing, mechanical toucans he built for a local restaurant, marveling at how difficult it was to make them move like real birds. “We just do things we want to do because they’re interesting,” he says.

He talks in five-minute-long bursts on topics that range from expressions of wonder at the energy efficiency of biological systems (“Humans run on carrots!”) to reflections on engineering to starry-eyed platitudes (“Some things have to be believed to be seen”). But his chattiness belies a penchant for secrecy. He rarely talks to the press. He won’t tell me his age. As we walk though various labs, he’ll point to a device—a miniature unmanned ground vehicle, a new design for an exoskeleton leg—launch into an excited explantion, and then stop and ask me not to mention it. His reticence stems in part from the fact that several of his projects are military-funded. But there’s also a hint of the magician who’s not keen to reveal too many of his tricks.

Check out video of the XOS in action

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