Members of the team sent to recover the Chang’e 5 re-entry capsule and its precious cargo wore exoskeletons to help them trudge through the deep snows of Inner Mongolia laden with heavy packs.
As soon as the capsule arrived back on Earth in the early hours of Thursday morning in the Siziwang banner of the north China region, a team from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which was responsible for the entire lunar mission, had to race to set up a temporary communication station to connect the landing site with its Beijing headquarters, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
And carrying the mountains of gear needed to create such a facility would have been a lot more difficult were it not for the wearable machines.
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“I would have been exhausted after walking 20 or 30 metres, but with the help of the exoskeleton, 100 metres or more was not a problem,” one of the operators said as he carried a 50kg (110lb) pack through the frosty terrain, where the temperature often falls below minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit).
The CCTV report said that by using an exoskeleton, people can carry more than twice what they can without one.
The suits were designed by the Human Function Enhancement Technology Research Centre, under the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), to enhance the performance of soldiers working at high altitude, Chinese newspaper Global Times reported last month.
Zhang Lijiang, the centre’s director, said the exoskeletons, which weigh about 4kg and cost 50,000 yuan (US$7,700), could provide energy savings of about 10 per cent for a person carrying a 25kg load at high altitude.
Earlier this year the exoskeletons were seen being put to good use by Chinese military medical and logistics workers in the Himalayas, where China and India have been locked in a tense stand-off for months.
Unlike powered exoskeletons developed elsewhere in the world, the Chinese machines do not have an active power source, according to an earlier report by CCTV.
Cecilia Chan, a physiotherapist in Hong Kong, said there were benefits to the machines not having a power pack.
“A passive, unpowered exoskeleton can keep working, even in extreme climates,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about the bad weather, which could cause electric devices to fail.”
The frame of the Chinese machine was specifically designed to support heavy objects, she said.
“Just like the spinal protection backpack, the frame reduces pressure on the person’s joints when they are carrying something heavy.”
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