(Source: MEAM Team)
Exoskeleton arm can lift up to 50 lb, is controlled by handheld remote

Most engineering senior design projects are an entertaining, but lack the wow factor of corporate inventions.  But every once in a while you'll come across a gem.

I. Titan Arm Looks to Smash Back Problems

Among the pleasant surprises from this semester was the "MEAM Team" from the University of Pennsylvania, who offered up their own take on an upper body exoskeleton.  The team was motivated by the very real problem of back disorders which affect 600,000 workers a year in the U.S. and cost the economy an estimated $50B USD.  Most of these back disorders come from overexertion during lifting.

That's where the "Titan Arm" comes in.  

The one-arm exoskeleton helps the user lift objects in a curl motion, sparing the user's elbow from wear and tear.

Composed of five structural members, four moveable joints, and an adjustable upper arm member, the exoskeleton is strapped on the back and onto the user's arm.  The shoulder has three degress of freedom, so the user's arm is able to move relatively naturally in three-dimensional space.  

Titan Arm
A MEAM Team member works out with the Titan Arm. [Image Source: MEAM Team]

Like Tony Stark's Iron Man suit, the exoskeleton system is made mostly of metal -- CNC-milled 6061-T6 aluminum, to be precise.  The lightweight aluminum cuts the weight of the entire system to 20 lb.  Non-load-bearing components were made using a 3D printer.

The system, which costs under $3,000 to make, can hold a static load via a braking system, or lift at 3 rad/s (for a 44 cm forearm+hand length, this works out to about 132 cm/s or 4.3 ft/s -- pretty fast.  The motor is mounted in the backpack area; the elbow joint is driven by a cable system.

II. Advanced Controls and Plenty of Power

Hall effect sensors and an advanced microcontroller are used to drive the device in a smooth, fast, yet safe curling motion.  The microcontroller uses a handheld remote control (similar to the WiiMote) to trigger the up and down motion.

Titan Arm
A MEAM Team member models the Titan Arm. [Image Source: MEAM Team]

At the same time the system can lift 165W in a bicep curl.  Assuming the bicep curl is a full half-circle, that works out to a lift capacity of around 20 kg or about 44 lb (the MEAM Team calculates the capacity at 50 lb, close to this napkin estimate).  An aluminum backplate in the backpack-part of the device gives the user support during their lifting.

The exoskeleton market is an exploding field, but the Titan Arm is pretty slick considering it's still in its early prototype stages.  The cost is particularly attractive and another upside is that there has been less upper-body exoskeleton designs compared to lower-body models (which are aimed at helping paraplegics walk).

Amazingly the arm only took 2nd place in the UPenn project competition.

Don't be surprised to see the MEAM Team and their faculty backers looking to monetize this product and sell it to employers with manual-labor intensive jobs -- such as auto companies or the military.

Source: Titan Arm/MEAM Team

"You can bet that Sony built a long-term business plan about being successful in Japan and that business plan is crumbling." -- Peter Moore, 24 hours before his Microsoft resignation

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