What is a back support exoskeleton and how does it work?
What if you could wear something that made you or a box you are carrying feel lighter? That is exactly what a back support exoskeleton does!
Suppose you stay in a bent-over posture for a long time. If you do this, you will likely tire quickly, because your upper body is heavy—about half of your body weight. If people need to stay in a bent-over posture, they typically put a hand down on their knee or on a surrounding object. Then, the weight of their torso is supported by their arm, and their back doesn’t have to do as much.
The back support exoskeleton works the same way, but instead of using your arm, the exoskeleton supports your torso. When you put it on, it pulls upward on your shoulders and pushes downward on your thighs, just like an arm pushing against your knee. With the exoskeleton, your torso feels nearly weightless—you can “float” in a bent-over posture almost indefinitely.
This extra support force also helps when lifting or bending repetitively. When you lift up a box, you are lifting both your torso and the box. Even if you are lifting very light objects, or lowering objects to the floor, you still need to lift your torso’s weight each time you bend forward and stand up again. This is tiring for your back! Since the exoskeleton makes your torso feel nearly weightless, your back is much less tired if you wear it.
If you lift heavy boxes, the exoskeleton again pulls you upward, making the box effectively lighter. Instead of making your torso feel weightless, the exoskeleton makes it feel as if the box got lighter. Our exoskeleton makes boxes feel 35 pounds lighter—which is a lot! This is the most support of any current exoskeleton or exosuit. A 50-pound box will feel like it only weighs 15 pounds. This reduces the risk of back injuries and saves you energy.
How does our exoskeleton help you?
Making it easier on your back
When you are lifting up a box, the exoskeleton makes your back feel like it is lifting 35 pounds less. This is shown in a graph of the muscle activity in the lower back (the iliocostalis lumborum muscle).
As you can see, if you lift an empty box, the exoskeleton makes it 46% easier, and if you lift a 35 lb. box, the exoskeleton makes it 42% easier!
Moreover, the back muscle activity with a 35 lb. box and the exoskeleton is nearly identical to the muscle activity with an empty box without an exoskeleton. This proves that your back feels like it is lifting something 35 pounds lighter—giving you more energy, and reducing the risk of back injuries.
The exoskeleton can also improve productivity: with the exoskeleton, people naturally will be less tired, and be better able to maintain their pace throughout a shift. One location at which we tested exoskeletons conducted a productivity study with two employees. Workers needed to lift 40-lb. objects more than 200 times each shift. A graph of the results is shown below.
These workers achieved 20-40% more with the exoskeleton! Note that it takes time for people to get used to the exoskeleton and benefit from it—gradual increases were seen over the course of several months. It’s a new technology, and people may need to figure out how to work with it most effectively.
Also note that in this particular study, there were large productivity gains observed. But in some other roles, workers’ productivity did not change much. Our best guess is that in some jobs, workers are already moving as fast as possible throughout their shift. In this study, it’s likely that without the exoskeleton, the workers were fatigued at the end of the day and their productivity dropped off. We hypothesize that with the exoskeleton, the workers got less fatigued and were better able to maintain their productivity.
Can you move naturally with the exoskeleton?
Yes! The exoskeleton lets you move exactly as you would normally. To enable walking, the exoskeleton uses a “differential” between the legs. When you walk, one leg moves forward while the other moves backward. The exoskeleton has a mechanism to let you do this without any restriction. But when you bend forward to lift, the mechanism creates force to help support your torso. The exoskeleton does this automatically, without needing to engage or disengage it. The exoskeleton’s construction uses loose straps to connect your body to the frame, allowing your legs to move in all directions and allowing you to twist and bend as you wish.
Where can the exoskeleton be used?
The exoskeleton can be used anywhere people do bending, lifting, or staying in a leaning posture for a while. Some common applications are in:
- Warehouses and Logistics Centers
- Shipping and Receiving
- Stocking shelves
- Landscaping and outdoor work
- Maintenance and repair
What do users say about the exoskeleton?
Users report the exoskeleton becomes essential to their work, improving their quality of life and allowing them to return to work sooner after injury.
“The exoskeleton is probably the only reason I came back [to work] after the first week.”
– Employee in St. Louis, MO
“I feel like I have more energy at the end of the day after wearing the exoskeleton.”
– Employee in Richmond, VA
“The exosuit helped me do my normal job after a back injury; without the suit, I would not have been able to do any lifting at all.”
– Employee in Christiansburg, VA
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the exoskeleton
Do you need to contract your stomach muscles to bend down with the exoskeleton?
No! Gravity is pulling your torso down, which causes the exoskeleton to flex. It offsets the weight of your torso, almost like floating in a swimming pool.
Does the exoskeleton work if I’m just lowering boxes?
Yes! Even when you lower objects, you still need to use your back muscles and can get injuries. Getting extra support from our exoskeleton will let you do this with a lower risk of injury, and help you avoid getting tired.
Does the exoskeleton help if you are just standing up?
Yes! People say that the extra postural support from the exoskeleton helps them, even if they are just standing upright for long periods of time.
Is the exoskeleton hard to put on and take off?
No! After a little practice, the exoskeleton can be put on or taken off in 15 seconds.
How does the exoskeleton compare to a back brace?
Back braces actually don’t work—studies have shown that they actually in higher injury rates. Moreover, they don’t pull your torso upward or make objects feel lighter. Our exoskeleton acts like a giant spring for your body, which actually makes boxes feel 35 pounds lighter.