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Affordable exosuits are here, but they don’t look (or work) how you’d expect

None of us are ever going to be Superman, beings from another planet in possession of astonishing birth-given superpowers. However, we could be Iron Man, able to slip into a special assistive suit that augments our natural abilities with the use of some smart high-tech components.

That’s the appeal of the powered exoskeleton or exosuit, a one-time science fiction dream that today’s engineers are trying their darndest to make a reality. Such a suit could, so the theory goes, provide additional technological support to its wearer to enhance their abilities when it comes to lifting heavy objects or walking for long periods of time.

But while some exosuits look a whole lot like the Iron Man suit, or perhaps Aliens’ Power Loader, that’s by no means a prerequisite. For an assistive suit that is meant to be worn in everyday life, it would almost certainly be better to have something more form-fitting that could be worn surreptitiously on top of clothes or under them without adding additional bulk. In other words, more Tony Stark than Iron Man.

That’s what researchers from Vanderbilt University have been busy working on for the past several years. And now they’re ready to bring their finished product to market. Called, appropriately enough, the HeroWear Apex, this textile-based exosuit is a back-assist exosuit that uses a proprietary band-based mechanism to reduce strain on the back without getting in the way. Coming soon to a wearer near you.

How it works

“I blame my kids,” Karl Zelik, an assistant professor in mechanical and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt, told Digital Trends. “They are now four and two years old. Back around 2016, I started noticing more back pain as my son grew heavier as a result of all the lifting, hauling, and leaning that goes along with parenting.”

As a wearable technology researcher, Zelik’s immediate thought was to seek out an assistive device that could offload the pressure on his weight. “What I found were devices that were too bulky, too heavy or too ineffective,” he said. “[There was] nothing that I felt could work for me, or fit into my lifestyle or daily routine. So my team and I at Vanderbilt University started studying the science of back pain, and the causes of musculoskeletal loading and over-exertion injuries.”

The more Zelik looked into it, the more he was shocked to discover the challenges faced by people with back injuries. What followed were four years of researching and developing a brand new lightweight, low-profile exosuit able to relieve back-strain in the most physically demanding jobs.

Lee Steffen

Unlike some of the bulkier, more tech-heavy solutions explored for certain settings, HeroWear Apex is decidedly short on the kinds of innards you would normally find powering such a suit. “[Our] Vanderbilt lab prototype used to include batteries and motors,” Zelik said. “But industry end-users consistently expressed that they would be more enthusiastic about a wearable assist device if they didn’t have to deal with charging.”

The resulting harness-style wearable might look futuristic in its design, but its augmenting abilities are provided using components such as elastic bands in place of servos and motors. When a person wearing the suit squats down or bends forward, the exosuit means that a portion of the force that would typically go through their back muscles is instead redirected to travel through the suit’s elastic bands. This reduces back strain while lowering and lifting. Elastic energy stored in the bands then helps a person pop back up at the other end of the movement, making things easier to lift.

In lab studies, the Vanderbilt University team has shown how the three-pound suit can relieve more than 50 pounds of strain off the back during lifting and bending. These back offloading results have also been replicated during field tests with an international logistics firm and Fortune 500 retailer.

A game-changer for the industry

“The biggest challenge is figuring out how to design exos that are comfortable and that don’t interfere with movement or daily job tasks,” he said. “This has been one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of occupational exoskeletons in industry. Even in lifting-intensive jobs, only about 10% of a worker’s time is spent physically bent over lifting. The rest of the time is typically spent walking, reaching, climbing in and out of vehicles or other tight spaces, [and the like.] The absolutely critical thing is for exoskeletons to stay out of the way during these other tasks, and only assist when people need it.”

Lee Steffen

Zelik realized something else surprising (or, perhaps, sadly unsurprising) along the way: Very few prototype exosuits have been built for women. “The Apex is game-changing for the industry because it’s the first exoskeleton or exosuit product designed from the ground-up to fit women and to have a female-specific version,” he said. “Historically, exoskeletons have not been designed to fit women’s’ bodies, which is well-known, and a huge problem since women make up over half the industrial workforce. We hope the debut of this new exosuit helps trigger a shift in the exo industry towards more inclusive design.”

HeroWear is currently accepting orders for summer 2020 and beyond. Each Apex exosuit costs $1,199. But to paraphrase an old MasterCard ad tagline, if it works as well as is claimed, the results could be priceless!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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