What can lift 500 pounds in each hand, walk for miles and miles with a heavy load, or leap over obstacles in a single bound?
Humans – with the help of wearable robotics.
Alan Asbeck anticipates in less than a decade, everyone will have seen somebody donned in a robot suit.
“I’ve wished I had one when moving from house to house or when shoveling snow,” he said.
Asbeck is a real-life Tony Stark. He is an engineer building wearable robots for performance enhancement. He says the technology is on the rise. They can’t make a person fly like Iron Man, Stark’s alter-ego. But wearable robots do offer a superhuman quality.
Performance-enhancing wearable robotics comes in several forms. Exoskeletons have a rigid structure like bones strapped to the body, while exosuits are a textile system. Active robotics has a battery-powered motor, while passive robotics uses springs or cables to act like tendons.
It is the passive variety that Dr. Alan Asbeck and his group at Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Labare developing. Their exoskeletons relieve strain on the arms or back to assist people who work with their arms aloft or lift heavy objects. In 2017, Lowe’s Innovation Labs partnered with Asbeck’s group to give an exosuit a test-run in their Virginia warehouse. Asbeck said the suits proved to reduce the load on the body, allowing the back muscles to exert as much as 35% less effort.
Without a battery, the passive exoskeleton stores energy that comes from the user’s movement. For instance, a warehouse worker bends and lifts boxes all day long. Every time they bend over they flex a bow that extends between the legs and back. Like a stretched bow and arrow, the bow across the worker’s back springs back to the upright position. For people tasked with lifting, sorting, and moving heavy objects for an eight-hour shift, this exoskeleton could mean the difference between going home exhausted or having enough energy for a round of kickball with the kids.
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