Army creates exoskeleton suit for soldiers’ back pain

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Futuristic military dreams of an Iron Man exoskeleton suit might give way to something simpler: a lightweight wearable to help relieve back pain.

The new suit, which weighs just three pounds, is a soft harness that soldiers strap around their shoulders and legs. Soldiers can press a button on the suit near their left shoulder, which activates straps that run down their back to help ease the load when lifting heavy objects like artillery shells, boxes or guns.

His name is a mouthful, dubbed the Soldier Assistive Bionic Exosuit for Resupply, or SABER. It is being developed by the US military and Vanderbilt University, and is expected to be deployed in the field in 2023.

SABER departs from the bulky robotic “warrior suits” the military has designed in the past, and instead is a lightweight, flexible accessory that soldiers can wear while moving heavy machinery or artillery. The creators say this approach is better because it solves a specific problem the soldiers have without getting in the way.

“[The Army] first tried to create Iron Man,” said Karl Zelik, lead designer of SABER and associate professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University. “They had these complete robotic systems that hoped to do everything but ended up doing nothing because they [were] too bulky and heavy and complex and expensive… This exosuit is about as far from Iron Man as it gets.

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Back pain is very common in the Army and has a significant impact on operations. Lower back injuries result in more than one million lost or limited service days for soldiers each year, according to the US Army Public Health Center. According to US Army data, approximately 460 soldiers are diagnosed with back injuries every day.

To solve this problem, the army turned to its Pathfinder project – which aims to innovate army operations by having soldiers collaborate with universities – and invested $1.2 million in creating the prototype. of SABER combination.

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To date, approximately 100 soldiers have tested the suit at three different military bases. In May, 11 soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division used the SABER exoskeleton suit during a training mission at Fort Knox, which required them to lift heavy ammunition boxes and move a howitzer several times a day, Zelik said.

“By lifting 60-pound rounds, you wear yourself out,” Dale Paulson, a private first class with the 101st Airborne Division who tested the suit, said in a statement. “Wearing the suit really helped a lot, especially getting the rounds out of the back of the truck.”

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Now the suit design is moving from Vanderbilt University and Project Pathfinder to a spin-off company called HeroWear that will manufacture the device, Zelik said.

The challenge, Zelik added, is getting the product approved through the military’s “very complicated” procurement process. If this happens, the effects could be significant.

“You have a lot of people getting hurt,” he said. “We have the opportunity to help prevent some of these injuries.”

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