Exosuits have been floating around in our imagination for decades. Powered exosuits represent superhuman strength while unpowered exosuits assist with endurance and reduced likelihood of injury from physical activities.
Companies such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have held their sights on enhancing human capabilities for years, and those ideas are edging closer to fruition, one example is this partnership for a pilot program between Lowes and Virginia Tech. The Christiansburg Lowe's facility is part of a pilot program for testing unpowered, soft assistive exosuits.
What is the exosuit made of?
The exosuit is composed of fabrics to retain wearer comfort but ensure proper form while the suit is being worn. The back of the suit consists of a series of carbon fiber rods anchored onto the suit. The combination of flexible materials provides a user-friendly and truly beneficial experience without the need for hydraulics or other forms of rigid support.
How does it work?
The suit stores energy in carbon fiber rods when workers bend down to lift something and then releases it gradually to assist them in standing upright again. The transfer of energy utilized in this exosuit is much like how a bow stores and releases energy to shoot arrows at high velocity, but more gradually.
What makes this concept unique?
Other unpowered exoskeletons have been made for similar uses, but those perform to different demands in their own unique ways, the Lockheed Martin FORTIS exosuit is one such example. The Lowes and VT exosuit relies on storing and releasing potential energy rather than using mechanical supports or hydraulics like other suits, be they powered or unpowered.
This storage and release of energy to assist with heavy lifting is what truly sets the exosuits being used in a pilot program at the Christiansburg, VA Lowe's facility apart.
How will this affect industrial productivity?
This design is lightweight and unpowered, so it will allow workers to wear it comfortably all day and do so without worrying about whether they will stray too far from their cords or run out of energy. The resulting workers who are supplemented by this exosuit are then capable of carrying out those physically intensive tasks for longer and with less potential for injury.
Exosuits represent a large step forward in human productivity and fruition of many combined years of research. These suits are capable of expanding the realm of human physical capability and helping to ensure minimized risk of physical injury for their wearers. This collaboration between Lowes and VT is helping bring a mostly conceptual technology into real-world testing.
While exosuits have been made and tested before, this is the first example of exosuits being used on any scale in industry.
This test is helping to pave the way for exosuits to enter the mainstream industrial environment. A successful test in this Lowes facility is likely to result in production of more carbon fiber soft exosuits and an academic partnership for the rights to the design.