A team of four mechanical engineering students have won the 2013 James Dyson Award with their exoskeleton named the Titan Arm. The team from the University of Pennsylvania spent eight months creating the battery-powered robotic arm. They hope the invention will help people with back injuries to rebuild and regain control of muscles. It could also potentially be used by people to aid with the lifting of heavy objects as part of their work.

Titan Arm

The Titan arm incorporates a rigid back brace to maintain posture, a shoulder featuring rotational joints, and sensors that can track motion and relay data back to doctors for remote prognosis.

It can augment human weight-lifting strength by 40lbs (18kg), say the inventors, while the batteries can last for up to eight hours, depending on intensity of usage and workload.

“Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling,” said Sir James Dyson.

“We are ecstatic,” team member Nick Parrotta said. “It was totally unexpected – just incredible.”

“Reducing Cost Will Be Critical”

The team were able to produce a prototype for £1,200, which they say is a 50th of the average cost of similar exoskeletons that are currently on the market.

Mr Parrotta, who is currently studying for a masters in mechanical engineering said that cost was a big factor.

“We wanted Titan Arm to be affordable, as exoskeletons are rarely covered by health insurance,” he said. “This informed our design decisions and the materials we used. Most structural components are machined from inexpensive aluminium.”

According to the Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, Conor Walsh, academic and commercial interest in wearable robotics is ever increasing but he feels that costs need to continue to fall if we are to see robotics feature more in our everyday lives.

“Reducing cost will be critical for commercial systems, however the total cost is not just the cost of the hardware but also the added cost associated with research and development, quality assurance and regulatory compliance” he said.

Electromyography

The prototype is currently operated by a seperate joystick but the team hope that in the future they can develop models that use electromyography technology. This will allow the robotic arm to pick up electrical signals produced in the muscle tissue. With this technology incorporated into the prosthetics, users will be able to operate them almost without thinking.

Sir James explains that all of the inventors who took part in the competition employed the use of 3D printing.

“Prototyping technology, previously reserved only for companies with big research and development budgets, is enabling young inventors to develop sophisticated concepts at university,” said Sir James.

A Japanese team took second prize in the competition for Handie, a prosthetic hand with sensors that can read brain signals and third place went to the team from New Zealand, who produced a  3D printed plastic cast for broken limbs.

[Image via James Dyson Foundation]

SOURCE: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24819855