Philly Grad Students Develop Exoskeleton Arm That Gives You Extra Strength

Penn graduate students developed a robotic titan arm to help prevent back and arm injuries. The device was developed for just $2,000. (Published Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013)

Imagine the ability to lift and carry more weight than your body could handle, while reducing stress and helping to avoid an injury. It may seem like something that could only be achieved by a superhero, but not any longer.

A new robotic device called Titan Arm offers its user the chance to augment their strength – just like the Greek deities that its named after.

“We wanted to take the technology that superheroes use and break it down so an everyday person can use it,” said Elizabeth Beattie, one of the device’s creators.

Beattie along with fellow University of Pennsylvania engineering graduate students Nick Parrotta, Nick McGill and Niko Vladimirov developed the exoskeleton device over an eight month span as part of a thesis project. Their goal: develop a compact, wearable device that can help prevent workplace injuries.

“This is a robotic-assistive device that a person can put on, sort of like a backpack, and then it attaches to them and adds strength allowing them to lift things that they wouldn't be able to otherwise,” Parrotta said.

Using a pulley and motor system attached to a metal plate typically used for scuba diving tanks, the Titan Arm distributes the weight of a load off of a person’s arm – allowing them to lift more than the body allows. A remote control, that resembles ones used on video game consoles enables the wearer to move the arm up and down as well as lock it in place to prevent dropping.

“We estimate with this that we've been able to do 40-pounds in addition to whatever you're doing. So if I could do 20-pounds, add 40-pounds to that,” said McGill.

The group of 20-somethings envision laborers who perform repetitive tasks or those who regularly lift heavy items as prime candidates for the device.

“These are people like warehouse workers, FedEx drivers. People who need to lift things repeatedly throughout the day,” said Parrotta. “And the problem is that that type of repeated lifting leads to injuries and forces them to take off time from work. It's costly to them, costly to the employers and its, you know, an injury.”

There were more than 98,300 sprains, tears and strains resulting from overexertion while lifting or lowering items in 2011, according to OSHA. That’s the most recent data available. Those who were hurt doing repetitive motion tasks -- the same motion over and over -- spent three times the amount of time out of work than those suffering other workplace injuries, the agency reported.

Aside from preventing injury, Titan Arm could have applications in helping people recover from accidents and brain injuries like a stroke.

Dr. Guy Fried, Chief Medical Officer at Magee Rehab in Philadelphia, says he’d use such an assistive device right now to help a variety of patients.

“I would love to be able to prescribe this to one of my patients who had a stroke or who had a quadriplegia and they had the ability to move their arm one pound, but then the mechanics then pick it up where they can lift a hundred pounds and move forward,” he said. “And work out the subtleties where they can then brush their teeth or tie their shoes and comb their hair. The possibilities are endless.”

Dr. Fried says this robotic-assistive device could also provide the doctors and physical therapists with important data about a patient’s recovery – allowing physicians to better provide care.

“It’s something that we do…manually at this point, in measuring the range of motion,” Dr. Fried said. “This same gadget could move your shoulder back and forth, could lift your arm…could move your wrist, it’ll work your joints and will not allow your joints to freeze. It’s very useful in that it measures it and if there’s a problem, there could be a servo mechanism that’s giving you the read-back to say ‘Well your strength is coming along, but the next problem you’re running into is you’re having a tight shoulder.’”

Cost was another factor the team aimed to tackle. Similar exoskeletons can run for more than $100,000, according to the group. They were able to build this prototype for only $2,000.

“So really, what we're trying to do is develop a low-cost device that is more accessible and thus can help many more people,” Parrotta said.

Being able to develop such a device for a low-cost caught the eye of the James Dyson Foundation. The non-profit, launched by vacuum innovator James Dyson, holds a yearly international competition highlighting one invention developed by students.

This year, Dyson chose Titan Arm – bestowing the group with a $45,000 cash prize. It is also the first time a U.S. group took home the award.

The engineers plan to use the money to hone their design and see how it can be mass produced.

Among the improvements, the team says they’d like to add a second arm and remove the remote control – opting instead for a control system that takes cues from your muscles. Parrotta says the group is confident a finished model could be sold for $10,000.

They are quick to say, however, that such refinements would be several years away.

"It's definitely given us the means to go on, take Titan Arm to the next level," Beattie says.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.