Wed, 17 Jul 2019

It's 2019 where's my supersuit

The Conversation
14 May 2019, 16:27 GMT+10

I loved the Thundercats cartoon as a child, watching cat-like humanoids fighting the forces of evil. Whenever their leader was in trouble, hed unleash the Sword of Omens to gain sight beyond sight, the ability to see events happening at faraway places, or bellow Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Hooo! to instantaneously summon his allies to his location to join the fight. What kid didnt want those superpowers?

I also wanted Green Lanterns ring, Wonder Womans bracelets, Captain Americas shield and of course Batmans batsuit. I never imagined then that 30 years later, as National Superhero Day approaches, Id be designing components of my own supersuits.

I didnt really notice this until a few months ago. On that day, my childhood dreams were at once destroyed and fulfilled. Standing in a line, I noticed that everyone was focused on their smartphones screens. Suddenly it hit me: I already had Sword of Omens superpowers. With my smartphone, I can see video of faraway events and text my friends to meet up. Billions of people now have what used to be considered superpowers.

But what about the physical superpowers? I wanted those, too like superhuman endurance or strength. Those may not be too far behind: Im working on them in Vanderbilts Center for Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology. Humanity has begun to enter the age of wearable exoskeletons and exosuits that offer support and strength to peoples bodies.

Exoskeletons under development

Over the past five years, wearable exoskeletons that assist and aid movement have begun to shift out of research labs and into public use. Theyre still early versions, and the science is still emerging, but they include the first of several FDA-approved exoskeletons to assist individuals with spinal cord injury or after stroke, as well as exoskeletons to help keep workers safe and reduce the fatigue of physically demanding jobs.

Toyota even requires workers to wear exoskeletons as mandatory personal protective equipment when performing certain overhead work tasks, where fatigue and muscle stress could lead to injury.

However, most people who could potentially benefit dont yet have access to exoskeletons, because theyre generally too bulky, too expensive, interfere too much with other tasks or are not yet comfortable enough to wear. Ive become fascinated by the prospect of regular people turning themselves into everyday superheroes.

Preventing injuries with supersuits

From my research lab, I can walk across the street and within two minutes be at the Veterans Affairs Hospital or the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The nurses and other medical professionals who perform strenuous lifting, leaning and carrying tasks to care for patients are likely to develop low back pain or may already be experiencing it. A supersuit could help prevent this pain.

Low back pain is a complex problem with many potential sources, but one common source is due to stress from repetitive forces on the muscles and discs. Most adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime, and its a leading cause of physical disability. The prestigious medical journal The Lancet recently published a three-part series calling on everyone from national and international policymakers to funding agencies to researchers, engineers and clinicians to help improve the effectiveness of care and develop innovative new solutions to combat this global epidemic.

Over the last three years, the research team I lead has been developing a clothing-like exoskeleton, which might be more aptly described as mechanized clothing, a spring-powered exosuit or even just a supersuit. It consists of a vest and shorts made of common clothing materials, plus assistive fabric elastic bands and a switch that lets the wearer turn the suits assistance on or off.

When its switched off, the wearer can move freely and fully, which isnt typically the case with exoskeletons. Our suit doesnt have any motors or batteries and weighs less than three pounds. No part of it protrudes out from the body, so its easily concealed under everyday clothes.

At any moment, though, it can be switched on, so the suits elastic bands bear some of the load that typically goes through the persons back muscles. In an initial series of laboratory tests, the suit reduced loading on the low back muscles by about 20% during lifting and up to 40% during leaning, and it reduced the rate at which back muscles fatigue by 30% to 40%, on average.

We recently formed a spinoff company from this research, aptly named HeroWear LLC, to make this supersuit available to individuals and organizations who might benefit. We expect the product to be on the market in 2020. We have also begun a multi-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health to integrate wearable sensors and machine learning into our supersuits. With those additions, we may be able to develop future suits that monitor stress on the wearers back and automatically activate the assistance when its needed.

Boundless possibilities for supersuits

The goal for many exoskeletons is like that of a good cartoon supersuit not to do the work for its wearer, but to enhance and support that persons natural abilities. Assisting back muscles is just the beginning. We have also designed a similar spring-powered exosuit to assist the ankle muscles during walking and running. It may help increase endurance or reduce force on calf muscles and tendons as someone recovers from an injury.

Similar supersuits might also be designed to support the necks of nurses and surgeons who lean forward for long periods of time during procedures, or to reduce arm fatigue for a construction worker carrying heavy objects or for a parent carrying a child.

Teams across the globe are exploring a wide variety of wearable exoskeletons as well. These include motorized exosuits to assist the legs, arms and hands of individuals recovering from stroke or other neurological injury, rigid robotic exoskeletons to assist people after spinal cord injury and passive spring-assist exoskeletons to support individuals arms and shoulders with tool handling or overhead work in factories and shipyards.

Through the use of wearable sensors and biomechanical algorithms, supersuits might even be trained to teach proper lifting technique or to provide resistance training to help strengthen weak muscles and enhance fitness.

My hope is that 30 years from now by the time my children are my age performance-enhancing supersuits will be as common and mundane in society as smartphones are today. Perhaps people might even forget the amazing physical superpowers that they provide, and take for granted supersuits individual and societal benefits to health, fitness and well-being.

Author: Karl Zelik | The ConversationThe Conversation

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