The evolving exoskeleton

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by Emily Atkins

Exoskeletons have been making inroads into manufacturing and material handling environments for the past several years, and now a new version is set to power the technology to new achievements.

Delta Air Lines is partnering with Sarcos Robotics to test a powered robotic skeleton in the first quarter of 2020.

Sarcos has developed the Sarcos Guardian XO, a battery-powered, full-body exoskeleton designed to boost human performance and endurance while helping to prevent injury.

This robotic suit, designed for employees to wear, does the heavy lifting. By bearing the weight of the suit and the payload, the exoskeleton may enable an employee to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue.

The suit addresses the so-called lift-gap for items between 15 and 90 kilograms across a wide range of processes, and allows the operator to move in space where traditional lifting equipment cannot maneuver.

Until now exoskeletons have been passive, non-powered assistive devices used largely in the automotive sector to help workers doing repetitive overhead work. Toyota, Audi, Ford and many others have been testing and implementing exoskeleton systems. Levitate’s Airframe system was shown at ProMat in 2019 and is used in Toyota’s Woodstock, Ontario, plant. Ford began using a product called the EksoVest at 15 plants in 2018, including the Oakville Assembly Complex in Ontario. Swissport won an IATA award in 2019 for its role in developing an exoskeleton called the LiftSuit.

Delta is the first company whose frontline employees have worked directly with Sarcos to determine potential operational uses for the Guardian XO. In November, representatives from Delta’s airport customer service and cargo division visited the Sarcos headquarters to see the suit in action and explore how wearable robotics could potentially benefit them in their everyday work.

Baggage handlers lift an average of five tons of baggage per day, often performing lifts in awkward positions inside an aircraft’s underfloor baggage compartment. Such movements greatly increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

“We owe it to the best airline employees on the planet to explore how emerging technology can make their jobs safer and easier,” said Gareth Joyce, Delta’s senior vice-president – airport customer service and cargo. “That’s why we sought out a partnership with Sarcos.”

The Guardian XO is designed for use in industries where lifting and manipulation of heavy materials or awkward objects is required and isn’t easily handled by standard lift equipment. Potential uses at Delta could include handling freight at cargo warehouses, moving maintenance components at Delta TechOps or lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment.

Delta plans to test the technology in a pilot location, giving employees the opportunity to experience the technology in a real-world setting and provide additional feedback on its functionality.

In addition to enabling superhuman strength for extended periods, the robotic suit may also level the playing field in terms of physical capacity. Roles that have historically been limited to those who meet specific strength requirements could potentially be performed by a more diverse talent pool, thanks to wearable robotics.

Ben Wolff, Sarcos CEO, said, “We look for companies who are clear leaders in tech adoption and have a history of innovating. Delta is the natural fit in the airline industry and has proven to be a great partner as we work to fine tune this technology for commercial deployment.”

Delta first started working with Sarcos in 2018 as part of the “X-TAG”, or exoskeleton technical advisory group, representing the aviation sector. The group includes 10 Fortune 100 companies in industrial manufacturing, oil & gas, utilities, logistics, construction, automotive, aviation and aerospace industries.