PHOENIX — Over eight weeks, aerial porters at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, got a taste of superhuman strength thanks to a device designed by Arizona State University scientists.
"I think the future of exoskeletons is going to boom," said Dr. Thomas Sugar, the project's lead developer.
Sugar has spent more than three decades designing robotics. His latest mission took form when the military requested a device for airmen to help prevent musculoskeletal injuries during strenuous lifting and pushing tasks.
"We were asked by the Air Force to help aerial porters," Sugar said. "Aerial porters have to load and unload planes in a very fast and efficient manner."
Small motors and sensors that power the device give the wearer an extra boost to their legs during certain movements, resulting in about a 30% increase in strength.
Airman 1st Class Xavier Archangel put the lightweight exoskeleton system to the test.
He and his crew were tasked with loading massive pallets stacked high with 10,000 pounds of personal protective equipment and vaccine doses that were headed to Asia.
"Helps with like stability, back stability, hip stability, your overall lifting technique," Archangel said.
"Once it's on you and fitted to you, it's extremely comfortable. You can wear it all day," Tech. Sgt. Landon Jensen said.
The goal of the device isn't to allow the wearer to lift more weight or even work faster.
"We know that the task that they already had was difficult, and we just want to make that task simpler and easier with less fatigue," Sugar said. "When we were finished, the soldiers were asking to keep using them."
That's because aerial porters have one of the highest rates of injury in the Air Force, accounting for more than $31 million in annual disability benefits, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center.
"This suit will mitigate that so we don't have our airmen, when they go on to bigger and better things or if they become a career airman or whatever it is, they don't walk out of the Air Force broken," Jensen said.
Developers hope to commercialize the device, foreseeing future use in businesses like manufacturing and shipping.
This story was originally published by Cameron Polom on Scripps station KNXV in Phoenix.