Sandia LabNews

The right trousers

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ROBOT PANTS — Electromechanical technologist Divina Calderon observes as a test subject takes the ONYX wearable robotics for a test stroll on a treadmill. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

Unless they’re robot pants, we all put our pants on the same way, no matter how famous or rich or popular or anything else we may be; it’s just one leg at a time. However, if they are robot pants, then it’s one strap, one bolt and one battery at a time.

I’m putting on the Lockheed Martin ONYX set of “robot pants,” and it’s definitely a bit more involved than my regular trousers.

“The ONYX system is the most highly customizable of our test devices, so it’s the system that usually takes the longest to get fitted into,” says David Wood, a recently hired mechanical engineer who studied biomechanics while pursuing his doctorate.

And while it’s true that it takes a while, almost 30 minutes in my case, once I’m done and start walking around, they’re probably the coolest trousers I’ve ever worn. After all, none of my other pants provide motorized assistance for movement or make me sound like a cyborg when I move. So, while it’s plenty cool to be wearing them, as I climb up onto the treadmill for my testing session, I can’t help but wonder why, beyond just being cool, would anyone need a set of robot pants like these?

It turns out the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management is interested in exploring whether exoskeleton systems, like the ONYX robot pants I’m wearing, can help protect workers from musculoskeletal injuries resulting from ergonomic issues, acute overexertion or even chronic overuse.

“We’re looking at how these devices affect simulated workers’ biomechanics, or more simply, how they move,” says project lead Jason Wheeler. Thus, Sandia, along with a consortium of other labs and universities, started a wearable robotics study to determine what systems might best help protect workers when going about their regular activities.

Sandia is working with several sites, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Savannah River Site and the Hanford Site to identify areas where workers may benefit from wearable devices that might increase efficiency and reduce fatigue in typical, yet ergonomically challenging, tasks.

“For each task, we get a baseline and a comparison of each device we’re testing to determine how helpful it was or was not in performing that task,” Jason says. “We can show how helpful or restrictive each device was for each task, which can inform whether or not we should consider that device for further deployment.”

If you’re wondering whether we’ll all be wearing robot pants to work one day, Jason clarifies exactly how these devices are likely to be employed in the future. “In areas where work-related injuries are a significant factor but robots cannot replace workers, these devices will eventually become more common because they’re protecting workers. How broadly they’ll be applied is hard to pin down, but in perhaps 20 or 30 years, more than half of workers doing physically challenging work may be wearing a device of some sort.”

Therefore, I’m suiting up in these fancy robot pants so Sandia’s wearable robotics team can investigate what systems might best enhance the safety and efficiency of DOE workers. Through a series of experiments, the team is testing various commercial systems in relevant environments to see if they’ll meet the needs of the different sites where they could be potentially used. The main goals of this series of experiments are to determine what sort of short-term impact these systems may have on worker safety and productivity and to expand Sandia’s ongoing exploration into robotic and automation systems for a wide variety of applications.

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EXOSKELETON WALKING — Study volunteer and story author Johann Snyder does his best Bane impression from the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” while testing wearable robotics and a self-contained breathing apparatus on a treadmill. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

Naturally, these studies aren’t quite as simple as just putting on my fancy robot trousers and jumping on the treadmill. According to robotics engineer Michal Rittikaidachar, “One of the biggest challenges is the dichotomy of being academically rigorous and balancing that with the needs of the site user. As a national lab and as engineers, we gravitate toward academic rigor, but we need to keep the end user in mind.” A lot of that balance comes from not just mimicking tasks but understanding that in the real world with real workers, those tasks are more varied and unpredictable than in the controlled environment of a laboratory.

Beyond how these devices may improve worker efficiency and safety, another benefit of this study is how it’s affecting Sandia’s partnerships, especially with universities.

“We’re in a unique position to test multiple devices at once; a university wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that,” says robotics postdoc Tamzidul Mina. “We can provide them with feedback even as they work on new technologies, and that exchange helps create a good collaboration that will reap even greater benefits in the long run.”

So, while robotic trousers might be the wrong choice when it comes to fashion in general, Sandia’s wearable robotics team is exploring which might be the right robotic trousers when it comes to helping the DOE workforce of the future to work safer and more efficiently.

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