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Soft Exosuits for Back Support During Strenuous Tasks

Wearable robotic devices to mitigate injury risk and improve productivity for industry workers performing lifting and reaching tasks

Over half a million workers in the manufacturing and construction industries are injured on the job each year, resulting in an estimated direct cost of $13.8 billion. Occupational back pain is the leading cause of injury and accounts for one-third of all musculoskeletal injuries, resulting in a median of eight days of missed work. Discussions with logistics, automotive, warehouse, construction, and other companies have highlighted the specific challenges their workers face, such as lifting with awkward poses (e.g., large horizontal or vertical load distances) or performing many repetitions of a task throughout a day. In addition, in some roles workers are required to spend prolonged periods of time in bent-at-the-waist postures, putting significant strain on their backs.

Soft Exosuits for Back Support During Strenuous Tasks
The soft exosuit is designed to offload some of the strain of performing heavy lifting and reaching tasks while allowing the wearer to perform any movement without restriction. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

This need has led to rapid recent growth in the area of wearable robots or exoskeletons aimed at industrial applications. These systems must be both easy to use and highly functional, posing a challenge to traditional robotics. Specifically, the presence of rigid components can make integration with existing personal protective equipment (PPE) difficult or not possible due to the risk of damaging sensitive products (e.g., a car body in production) or environment constraints (e.g., moving in tight spaces). Furthermore, any added weight and restrictions to natural movement are highly undesirable, especially for dynamic activities when workers are moving around while lifting objects of different shapes and sizes.

Researchers at the Wyss Institute are developing the next generation soft wearable robots. Our patent-pending soft exosuit technology is a lightweight, textile-based system that feels and moves like clothing but is designed to offload strain from the back muscles during physically strenuous tasks. The soft exosuit can be quickly put on or taken off, attaches to the wearer via textile components around the waist, shoulders, and thighs, and is powered by a small, lightweight motor. Sensors integrated into the system detect the wearer’s movements and adaptive algorithms dynamically adjust the support the soft exosuit provides for each individual and task. The system is designed to assist when needed and be “transparent” at other times, meaning a worker won’t feel restricted during non-lifting activities such as walking, driving a truck, or taking a break.

The core technology for soft exosuits is based on five years of research and development by a multidisciplinary team initially focused on reducing fatigue and strain on military personnel walking with heavy loads as part of the DARPA Warrior Web Program. The medical application of the technology has been licensed to ReWalk Robotics and a product aimed at improving mobility and rehabilitation for stroke patients began a clinical trial in early 2018. The industrial soft exosuit for supporting the back is currently being de-risked at the Wyss Institute.

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