‘Powered exoskeletons are the technology of the future’

7 Nov 2018

Dr Divya Srinivasan of Virginia Tech. Image: Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s Dr Divya Srinivasan is helping to meld human experience with the latest hardware to design powerful exoskeletons for the workforce of the future.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Anna University in India in 2005, Dr Divya Srinivasan travelled to the US to the University of Michigan, where she finished two master’s degrees and a PhD.

After being awarded a postdoctoral scholarship at the Centre for Musculoskeletal Research in Sweden, she returned in 2016 to the US to take up a position as assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s (VT) Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I remember always being fascinated by the human body. While growing up, this fascination turned into borderline obsession in terms of curiosity about how the body works, why there are such large differences across individuals in physical performance and skill, and how we can engineer tools/methods to best enhance human performance and health.

In graduate school, I discovered that there was now no stopping the challenges I could potentially tackle (theoretically) and also got excited by how my research was ideally placed to be so close to impacting society.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My work in the wearable robotics area spans both basic research and characterisation of exoskeletons (projects funded by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation) and applied evaluations (industry- and consortium-funded projects).

In one of my projects that is in partnership with the Mechanical Engineering department at VT, we work on the development of flexible robotic systems to assist farmers with mobility limitations in performing activities of daily living. I lead the human factors aspect of the work with a focus on what needs and expectations farmers have for the technology. This includes what potential concerns would limit new technology use and the evaluation of new exoskeleton designs using tests of performance enhancement, biomechanical effects and user experience.

In another project, I lead the performance of critical fundamental research necessary to make powered exoskeletons functionally effective for augmenting human performance in industries such as manufacturing and warehousing. Partnering with multiple researchers across different departments, our team works on developing new, adaptive control and human-machine interfaces to make the use of powered exoskeletons effective, natural and intuitive. We are designing an interface using augmented reality to help users effectively interact with the exoskeleton.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In many industrial sectors, especially those involving heavy physical labour, the current workforce is nearing retirement age while younger generations often lack the interest to learn the technical skills associated with those jobs. Furthermore, occupational injuries cost US companies more than $13bn annually, with overexertion accounting for the majority of injuries.

Imagine waking up one day and being capable of doing heavy physical jobs without pain or injuries. Workers currently in those positions would be able to do the job with less physical effort and in a safer way, develop new technological skills, and possibly get paid better.

Exoskeletons could also allow people with different physical abilities the opportunity to enter and stay employed in physically demanding occupations. Thus, augmentation – as opposed to automation – is emerging as a key idea worth exploring in the workplace, and we are happy to be on the rising curve of this new era of research and development.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

There are so many kinds of exoskeletons that are now being developed. If you look at a catalogue of commercially available exoskeletons online, the numbers grow every week and there are several more that are being developed and tested, not yet commercially released.

From a consumer perspective, if you are an industry that is wondering whether or not to implement exoskeletons on your factory floor, we have performed assessments of such a diverse set of tasks and designs that we can help you make an informed choice on which technology to invest in.

Finally, from a design/development perspective, while passive exoskeletons are currently more popular and market-ready, powered exoskeletons are the technology of the future, and our work on enhanced interfaces and controls will be applicable to both current and future models.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

As our national workforce is increasingly diversifying and, at the same time, being beset by challenges related to ageing and obesity, it has become critical to develop better models of human performance.

In this context, the fields of human factors and ergonomics aim to bring about an effective match between human capacity and workplace demands. But, as technology steadily marches forward, bringing increasing levels of automation, the playing field is rapidly changing, and with it so are the expectations placed on our workforce.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Oh yeah, several. The chief among many being that if you’re talking about a robot, you’re here to take away jobs. Also, we hear from industrial management that our work involves expensive changes to the workplace that will not benefit industrial productivity.

Another common misconception is that human factor engineering should be ‘simple’ as it is just about applying ‘guidelines’. Hence, there is a lack of appreciation for the need for our research, including the extent of problems that can result from operation without it.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

There is so much variability in people’s sizes that making exoskeletons that would optimally fit anyone in the population is a big challenge right now. There is also so much variability in how individuals perform tasks, the strategies they use, how they adapt when they feel tired or uncomfortable, and the effects of those strategies on performance and their own bodies.

So, when and how an exoskeleton can optimally assist any task performed by any individual are huge challenges that need to be tackled. While these are design challenges, on the evaluation side, the state of the art now is to test multiple use cases on several individuals – a sort of brute-force method that needs a lot of time and resources.

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