European researchers have unveiled a wearable robotic exoskeleton that they claim could help production workers lift heavy loads without risk of injury. Developed through the €4.6m EU-funded Robo-Mate project the prototype system is part of an effort to reduce the incidence of musculoskeletal injuries amongst factory workers. The exoskeleton consists of a lightweight, flexible, easy-to-wear, and fully movable upper body and a stability providing lower body.
With a maximum weight of 30kg and a size of 1.6m to 1.8m, it enables workers to move locally, and can be used both as posture support, and to augment the strength of its user.
The arm modules are attached to the upper and lower arms and use motors to deliver a tenfold reduction in the force acting on workers when lifting an object. The wearer’s spine and back is protected by a trunk module which helps to keep the torso straight when carrying out lifting and bending tasks, whilst leg modules provide further support and remove strain from the wearer’s thighs.
One of the key elements of the project saw the researchers work closely with industrial partners in order to gain a fuller understanding of the kind of stresses and strains the human body can encounter in a production environment.
The team now plans to carry out further research on the system to ensure that it’s fully safe for industrial use and to refine it’s design in order to improve user-acceptance of such systems. “The only way this kind of support can be successful is if workers themselves accept the technology,” says Prof. Dr. Michiel de Looze, partner for human-robot interaction at TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research TNO.
The team behind the system claim that it could be particularly useful for difficult to automate tasks which also require heavy lifting such as assembling and dismantling operation frequently carried out in the automotive industry.
“We’re not looking to make superheroes. We want to develop a helper that supports production workers in their everyday work and keeps them healthy,” said one of the team’s members, University of Limerick ergonomics specialist Dr. Leonard O`Sullivan.
The system is the result of a collaboration between 12 European partners