“Excited About the Distance:” Nemo Chen on How to Make a Robotic Suit in 3 Weeks

By Rachael Jennings

Armorless frame.

Armorless frame.

If you walk up the stairs to the Wing and Hollow loft, the upstairs open-plan room in one of our boys’ dormitories, you will meet this a builder’s studio. Bordered with snow boots, winter gear, and general storage items, you will see tools, duct tape, coils of wires, and a stunning army-style robotic suit. On recent nights, you will see students in Wing and Hollow marveling at the suit, trying it on, testing its movement function, and helping the designer photograph his work.

The suit has an aluminum frame plus fiberglass and Kevlar armor. 

The aluminum parts were customized in China. Nemo Chen, the mastermind, designer, and builder, sent the drawings he made to China, where they received the drawings, put the measurements in the machine, and cut them. 

“Designing took me 50 hours in two weeks, and cutting the designs took maybe 30 seconds,” Nemo says. “The suit has a 15 kilograms of torque at each power joint,” Nemo explains. “There are 4 power joints. That means that I can lift up 15 kilograms with my arm. It was not designed to be a construction suit. The power joints are to reduce the weight of the armor so that you do not have to feel so heavy when you move.”

The suit has almost full cover armor. It is Level 3 bulletproof. If it were used in warfare. handguns and low caliber rifles could fire at it, and the person wearing the suit would be safe. “The armor is interchangeable, which means that you can take it off the frame and switch it out,” says Nemo. “For example, you can exchange the bulletproof armor for active armor. You might need light armor in some settings, but on a battlefield, for instance, you need thicker armor. To take off the armor on the arm and replace it with a robotic hand takes about ten seconds.”

Students and faculty at Dublin School know Nemo as a builder, as a creator. He is a meticulous designer, and his dorm room this, his sophomore year, and last, his freshman year, has become a space for designing and building. The corner of his neatly organized section of his dorm room has become a Makerspace. He has been a vital member of Dublin’s Robotics Team, taken technology classes, and has been a passionate builder in his free time. 

“I have liked building things since I was very small, but the trigger for building robot suits was that when I was discovering fossils in western China in seventh grade, I was looking at the blocks of fossils, and all of the sudden, I slipped and started rolling down the mountain,” says Nemo. “I fell down the mountain and got all of these cuts. I decided then that I needed to build a suit. If I could imagine a suit that would keep me safe in an expedition, I could build it.”

That time was also when he first saw the first Iron Man movie. “The movie visualized a concept I had thought of. Once I saw it, I knew I could make my concept happen,” he says.

Like anyone pursuing a project and vocation, Nemo has been an assiduous worker. He has been an experimenter, willing to see what works, combine ideas, scratch ideas, start over. He has been a student, learning as much as he can about his field. “I did a lot of research from the beginning—from the first robotics suit ever designed, which was designed by a German scientist from long ago—to the most recent,” he says. Careful and simultaneously exuberant in his planning, Nemo researched, designed, redesigned, and finally began building. “The first suit I designed for a long time, but it was my safe design. I designed five more before the first one was built.” 

“The first suit was made of cardboard, but the suit could cover the whole body and fold into a case. That was in ninth grade.” Like anyone who wishes to excel at something, there have been hurdles along the way, and Nemo is eager to learn everything he can from every setback, surprise, and success. “Some of the problems I first faced were using too much electronics and too much power. So I needed to simplify where I put the power. One solution was to use two angles on the arms and two angles on the legs,” he says.

Jack Pearce modeling suit for inventor Nemo Chen

His suits’ composition have also evolved. “I made the first cardboard one, then one aluminum one, then another aluminum one, then one out of fiberglass,” he elaborates. “Then I combined the most recent suits for the current one.”

Nemo works on his projects at night in the Loft. His roommates are supportive and always curious to see what he builds or adds to a current project. One of his recent developments with his suit has been fine-tuning its movement. “In order to cooperate with a lot of human movements, the suit must have many, many joints that collaborate with a range of human movement,” he says. “So I came up with a frame that has the easiest design but it’s one that can do everything that those complex suits can do. If you look at the ankle, for example, there are joints on one aluminum piece that allow the ankle and foot to move on a tilt, straight forward, straight backwards, and sideways.”

“I have been trying it on during the building process in parts. For example, I will try on only the legs and then adjust,” he says. Once he feels that a design is close to completion, he lets another student in the dorm try it on, and he assesses its effectiveness.

“I want to do something related to Robotics because I am good at it, it is a trend that’s going up,” Nemo says. When he thinks about those who are also interested in robotics, he gives the following advice: “Look at Iron Man I more than thirty times. Do not get deceived by the suit that Raytheon made; that suit is so complicated and it won’t be put into real use in the next ten years. Build something that is more effective and useful.”

In the process of following his passion, Nemo has learned a great deal.

“On my own, I have learned that all my experiences with the last four suits is that the success of one suit is based on Dublin,” Nemo says. “I would say 70% of the success comes from what I learned at Dublin. I took Mechanical Design in the winter, and I learned how to do three-D modeling and how to make joints that the factories can cut. It’s a much easier process and much more efficient because of what I learned here.”

He also found it really helpful to open his project to student feedback; during one Activities period, he invited students to look at what he had completed and make suggestions. 
But he has learned a great deal about himself, too.

“Designing and building the suit in five weeks is a miracle. This is a new suit, not an upgrade. The best amount of time I thought I could spend [to build the suit was] four weeks. But I realized that I could finish it in three weeks. I was underestimating myself. I have learned I am actually better at this than I think I am,” Nemo reflects. “I just realized: I am better, I am different, I can beat my own goals. There’s still a long distance to go, and I am excited about that distance.”