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Robotic Exoskeleton Systems Studied for Industrial Workforce

Guardian XO exoskeleton

Guardian XO exoskeleton (Sarcos Robotics)

18 Oct. 2018. Control systems for whole-body robotic devices worn by industrial workers to help them perform their jobs are being designed and assessed by an academic-industry engineering team. The project, led by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg with a robotics developer and other institutions, is funded by a 5-year, $3 million grant from National Science Foundation.

A team led by ergonomics and human factors engineering professor Divya Srinivasan is seeking to better use robotic exoskeletons to improve the productivity of workers in factories and warehouses. New technologies are needed to improve output and job satisfaction in factory settings, say the researchers, to make up for a shrinking pool of trained workers for advanced industrial jobs. Moreover, factory and warehouse staff are being increasingly brought into contact with other robotic systems, raising safety risks for workers.

“Productivity would be boosted if people are healthier and safer,” says Srinivasan in a Virginia Tech statement. “Workers currently in those positions would be able to do the job with less physical effort and in a safer way, develop new technological skills, and possibly get paid better. We are hopeful that younger generations will not look down upon heavy industrial jobs as a result.”

Whole-body exoskeletons are wearable devices designed to reduce the physical strain on workers and guide their activities on the shop floor. The research aims to advance systems for controlling these exoskeletons as well as making their connections with humans more intuitive and adaptive in dynamic industrial settings. Augmented reality is expected to be a key part of these systems. With augmented reality, information can be displayed in workers’ field of view to increase their situational awareness in the workplace, to reduce guesswork and improve safety. In addition, algorithms will be written to better integrate exoskeleton-equipped workers with other robotic systems in their environment.

One of Virginia Tech’s partners in the project is Sarcos Robotics in Salt Lake City, a developer of robotic systems for industrial, defense, and public safety use, including hazardous work environments such as oil and gas, maritime, and mining. One of Sarcos’s products is an industrial untethered exoskeleton designed to enhance human strength and endurance. The Guardian XO system, as it’s called, is still in development. Also joining the team are other engineering labs at Virginia Tech, as well as visual artists from University of Virginia and University of California in Santa Barbara.

The study is also expected to evaluate the impact of these industrial exoskeletons on workplace productivity and diversity, including benefits for individuals with physical and cognitive impairments. A team member recruited for this part of the project is Virginia Tech economist Suquin Ge, expected to develop models for assessing worker productivity and more macro-level measures of corporate profits and labor market impacts.

The project is funded from National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier program, a cross-disciplinary initiative to study the interactions of humans, machines, and society to improve productivity and increase opportunities for workers.

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