Upper Limb Exoskeleton for Shoulder Joint Control; The Effectiveness and Acceptance of Wearable Robotics in Industry

Lee, Marvin, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Sun, Sarah, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
JACQUES, RICHARD, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Recent advancements in robotics have made a push for the use of wearable exoskeletons in medical, industrial, and military fields. The objective of these devices is to provide assistance to users by reducing the amount of muscle activation and effort needed to conduct a task or motion. Traditionally, exoskeletons have used rigid braces and motors that result in bulky, heavy designs. Extensive research and various exoskeletons of these kinds have been conducted; however, the technology is still lacking in terms of creating a practical, wearable design that can be used for long periods of time. Soft pneumatic artificial muscles have made a recent push in the robotics industry, as cheaper and more comfortable designs can be achieved, while still providing the necessary load assistance. But as with all major advancements in technology, it is essential to analyze the potential it can have in industrial application, as well as the ethical, legal, and social concerns associated with it.

The technical portion of my thesis involved the design and development of a soft, upper limb wearable exoskeleton. The overall design of the exoskeleton can be summarized into three major categories: actuation of the shoulder joint, actuation of the elbow joint, and the control/sensing system. The overall challenge of creating a more comfortable design was addressed by designing and implementing soft, pneumatic artificial muscles such as the McKibben muscle and inverse pneumatic artificial muscle (IPAM). These muscles were attached to the human body using a custom 3D printed collar and arm brace. Finally, the last stage of this project consisted of using EMG sensors along with a control system that can detect and predict the user’s intended motion. My sub-group focused on creating a novel design that provides assistance with shoulder abduction. Overall, the design could successfully demonstrate that the shoulder joint can be actuated using artificial muscles.

My STS research seeks to analyze the effectiveness and acceptance of wearable robotics in industrial applications. Industry experts have highlighted the need for exoskeletons such as flexibility and injury prevention. A literature review of several research studies was conducted and the results demonstrated that wearable exoskeletons can effectively provide support and reduce muscular activity. Additionally, safety concerns and standards regarding the adoption of these devices in the industry are discussed. International safety standards for exoskeletons used for industrial applications do not yet exist, thus creating benchmarks for product safety would accelerate the adoption of these devices in industry. Lastly, ethical, social, and legal concerns such as dehumanization, dependency, and safety liability, respectively, were highlighted as major concerns relating to the adoption of wearable exoskeletons in industry.

Wearable robotics are undeniably going to play an important role in society in the near future. Whether it be used in industrial, medical, or military applications, they will provide very useful assistance for physically laboring tasks, as well as aid in injury prevention. However, to fully utilize the benefits that exoskeletons can provide, it is essential that as engineers, we must ensure that these devices are safely introduced into the workplace. Although an industry-ready device was not created, both of these projects highlighted the need to analyze the social and ethical implications that may not be evident at first glance during the development of new technology.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Robotics, Exoskeleton, Shoulder, Artificial muscle

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Sarah Sun
STS Advisor: Richard Jacques
Technical Team Members: Colton Applegate, Joseph Carley, Nazirah Farach Rojo, Isabella Nazari

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