(Source: James Dyson Foundation/MEAM Team)
Group is first American team to win the prize; product currently can lift 40 lb, inches towards market

Let me give you a hand with that... or how about an exoskeleton. That's more or less the premise behind TITAN Arm -- quite possibly the coolest student project you've heard of, designed by the "MEAM Team" at the University of Pennsylvania.  Built using less than $2,000 USD worth of off-the-shelf parts, this senior design project not only scored its makers publicity and good grades, but a potential well of profits as well.

I. Rewarding Greatness

British inventor Sir James Dyson -- inventor of his company Dyson Ltd.'s iconic bagless vacuum cleaners -- for the last nine years has given out a small annual cash prize to the student design team he believes put forth the best invention.  Until now not one American team had one, but the MEAM Team broke that dry spell, scoring the accolade and the $45,000 USD in cash that comes with it (plus $15,000 USD for their school).

The $45K payout goes to the five students who built the TITAN Arm -- Elizabeth Beattie, Nick McGill, Nick Parrotta, and Niko Vladimirovm.  But the attention may prove even more valuable, as biotech suitors line up to market the invention.

The MEAM Team admits they received plenty of inspiration from past projects -- including a pneumatic exoskeleton made by Hiroshi Kobayashi's team at the Tokyo University of Science.  That project has much promise, but some fear its pneumatic mechanism exerts to much force on joints for many medical applications; plus the pneumatics require a lot of backing power, which has been a barrier to making it wearable outside of the lab.

A number of other universities and commercial firms are also working exoskeletons.  Among these are:

But most of these researchers have focused on leg strength foremost, for walking applications.  And they're almost all very expensive and have required years of engineering.

II. Lean Mean Development

By contrast the MEAM Team built an arm in just a few months, but managed to produce the device that's not only competitive power wise (it can boost lifting 40 pounds), but is battery powered, cheaper than nearly any commercial exoskeleton, and features a cable system similar to bicycle breaks that prevents sudden stopping, in turn preventing potential joint damage in users.

A team member shows off the awarding winning exosuit device.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Sir Dyson cheers the effort, stating:

We loved the way it had been executed.  The previous versions of this thing were mounted on the necks and shoulders, or the lower back, but utilizing the whole back was a great step forward. We liked the fact that they’d actually made it work. And the fact that they know how to make it much cheaper than existing exoskeleton arms is really important. I gather this kind of thing isn’t usually covered by medical insurance.

Students naturally want to do projects that are worthy. And I mean that in a very positive way. The first three winners this year were all people trying to help other people. I think that’s a great characteristic of all student projects. They’re people who want to change the world and make the world a better place. Often they’re not thinking commercially. Which is great, because companies think commercially. Students don’t.

A video recap of the project can be found below:

For now the MEAM Team is not only staying independent, but they're actively continuing the development of the TITAN Arm, looking to produce a second generation prototype.  The first generation had only one point of articulation -- the elbow joint.  While more complex and potentially expensive, the team wants to add a second point of articulation.  They did not say whether they would be looking to add another degree of freedom to the elbow joint (e.g. assisting carrying while moving the arm sideways), or adding a new joint such as a powered articulation point at the wrist or shoulder.

Either way, it's exciting to hear that the team is spending this well-earned reward on continuing the exosuit's development.  The team says the extra point of articulation will allow them to measure the amount of force the user's own muscle are contributing, allowing them to track physical therapy progress.

It should be interesting to continue to follow what they come up with over the next couple years.

Sources: The James Dyson Foundation, Wired

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