PHOENIX — Over eight weeks, aerial porters at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, got a taste of superhuman strength thanks to a device designed by Arizona State University scientists.
“I think the future of exoskeletons is going to boom,” said Dr. Thomas Sugar, the lead developer behind the project at ASU.
Dr. Sugar has spent more than three decades designing robotics. His latest mission took form when the military requested a device to help prevent musculoskeletal injuries during strenuous lifting and pushing tasks.
“We were asked by the Air Force to help aerial porters," he said. "Aerial porters have to load and unload planes in a very fast and efficient manner."
Airman first class Xavier Archangel put the lightweight exoskeleton system to the test. He and his crew were tasked with loading massive pallets stacked high with 10,000 pounds of personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines that were headed to Asia.
“Helps with like stability, back stability, hip stability, your overall lifting technique,” said Archangel.
“Once it’s on you and fitted to you, it’s extremely comfortable. You can wear it all day,” said Tech Sgt. Landon Jensen.
All of it adding up to around a 30% increase in strength.
Small motors and sensors power ghat the device give the soldiers an extra boost to their legs during certain movements. However, the goal isn’t for them to lift more weight or even work faster, although it’s clearly capable of doing so.
“We know that the task that they already had was difficult and we just want to make that task simpler, and easier with less fatigue,” said Dr. Sugar. "When we were finished, the soldiers were asking to keep using them."
That’s because aerial porters have one of the highest rates of injury in the Air Force, accounting for more than $31 million in annual disability benefits, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center.
“This suit will mitigate that so we don’t have our airmen, when they go on to bigger and better things or if they become a career airman or whatever it is, they don’t walk out of the Air Force broken,” said Jensen.
Developers hope to also commercialize the device foreseeing its future use in businesses like manufacturing and shipping.