Exoskeletons compete to boost strength of rescue workers

Five college teams test robotic suits that could enhance humans’ abilities.

Five collegiate exoskeleton teams showcase their mechanical suits for rescue workers engineered to provide extra strength in a variety of situations.

At the first Applied Collegiate Exoskeleton (ACE) Competition, the requested attire was circuits and motors. Teams from five schools gathered to tune-up, learn, and demonstrate their powered mechanical suits, which augment the wearer’s strength and abilities.

“Exoskeletons have a tremendous amount of applications,” said Declan Winship, electrical engineering student and president of the University of Michigan STARX (Strength Augmenting Robotic Exoskeletons) team. “There’s a huge push in the manufacturing industry, with Ford, Delta, and Lowes all looking into the technology.”

This includes helping assembly line workers with repetitive movements, baggage handlers lift luggage, and helping disabled people become more mobile. Teams at ACE created their exoskeletons for use by rescue workers.

“We believe if you can get someone into a dangerous situation with more energy, they can make better decisions, and if they really need to book it, they will have more energy to do so,” Winship said.

The five teams at the competition included University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Nebraska Omaha, Colorado School of Mines, and Iowa State University.

exoskeleton on balance beam Enlarge
Mechanical Engineering undergraduate student Leo McManus completes one of the obstacle course challenges, the balancing board, for the Applied Collegiate Exoskeleton Competition held inside the Bob & Betty Beyster Building on Saturday May 5, 2018 in Ann Arbor, MI. Photo by Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering, Communications and Marketing

Despite the competition and teams’ youth, the enthusiasm for the technology brought several attendees. Michigan State’s STARX exoskeleton team, in its first year, brought 30 members to the competition.

Kevin Rabideau (BSE CS 2016) founded U-M’s STARX team three years ago. “I started the group to develop practical exoskeletons for giving extra strength and making loads lighter,” Rabideau said. “This is exactly what I was hoping for, to walk into a room with all these people making fantastic machines that make you stronger.”

Jessica Mosier, a junior studying mechanical engineering who led the organization of the competition, noted the high level of collaboration between teams and sharing ideas for improvements. “Everyone is so happy to be here and wants to see this type of event more often,” she said.

Creating the suits, however, is an endeavor, and many teams ran into trouble building a device that had all components working. “I’d estimate it took 1,200 hours to build our exoskeleton so far,” said Leo McManus, a U-M junior studying mechanical engineering and the team’s mechanical lead.

“We just kept running into issue after issue with the electronics, and only got them sorted out at 4 a.m. last night,” said Owen Winship, U-M STARX team member and computer engineering student.

We cherry pick the best designs and throw in our own improvements to create the best exoskeletons we can.

Declan Winship, U-M STARX President and electrical engineering student

Out of the five teams, three were able to put forward a functioning exoskeleton to compete. “Even if a team doesn’t have a suit here today to test with, they’re still excited to fix things that went wrong, make improvements, and come again next year,” said Rabideau.

The exoskeletons were put through tests similar to those for entry-level firefighters. After a design review, where safety components and how long it took to suit up were assessed, the exoskeletons were fitted with 75 pounds of weights and timed while moving through an obstacle course: on balance beam, up and down stairs, across uneven terrain, under a low-clearance beam, and dragging a 165-pound mannequin for 100 feet.

If I could order one of these tomorrow, I would, because it would help our staff.

Mike Kennedy, Fire Chief, Ann Arbor Fire Department

Judges for the event included Jessy Grizzle, Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor and Director of Michigan Robotics, Deanna Gates, Director of the Rehabilitation Biomechanics Laboratory and assistant professor of kinesiology, Mike Kennedy, Ann Arbor Fire Department’s Fire Chief, and Dragi Gasevski, an engineer at Altair.

Colorado School of Mines won the overall competition, edging out the U-M host team by less than a tenth of a point on a 650-point scale. MSU took third place.

Mosier says the U-M team plans to host the event again next year.

“Despite everything going wrong and everything going to pieces, as every engineering project ever has, everything pulled through in the end and we saw really great performance out of every exoskeleton,” Winship said. “All we need to do is to do it again, and again, and again.”