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Innovation in Exoskeletons

Long imagined in science fiction, exoskeletons that can dramatically improve and extend human performance are becoming a reality for workers on manufacturing floors, warfighters and individuals with mobility impairments. NIST’s leadership, in developing standards that address the safety and performance of exoskeletons, is providing this emerging industry with the assurance it needs to innovate. 

 

Two women and a man outfit another man with an exosuit.
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Tom Faulkner
Army researchers evaluate a prototype soft exosuit device developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

NIST was instrumental in standing up an international committee that is working to define standards for exoskeletons (as well as exosuits, another type of wearable system with similar attributes). Despite rapid progress in the marketplace, there is currently only a limited patchwork of standards that address the safety and performance of exoskeletons, and few methods for testing how well these technologies meet those standards. NIST is helping to close this standards gap, to boost growth and innovation in the sector and make exoskeletons as common in the real world as they are on the screen. 

 

man in a Boeing exoskeleton
Credit: ©The Boeing Company

In factories and warehouses, workers are using exoskeletons to reduce the chances of injury from repetitive and strenuous tasks. The military is experimenting with them to prevent injuries and extend the strength and endurance of the warfighter. And patients who have suffered from strokes and spinal injuries are using them to increase their mobility and independence. To accelerate the acceptance and use of these technologies, there must be standard ways to evaluate their safety and performance. Better standards also foster competition by allowing manufacturers, including new startups, to demonstrate the performance of their products using agreed-upon metrics. 

NIST brings to this effort deep experience in industrial robotics, advanced materials, electronic engineering, battery systems, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. Using this expertise, NIST researchers are helping industry safely extend human performance by providing technical guidance and leadership in standards development. The next step is for NIST to develop methods for measuring performance against exoskeleton standards. For instance, NIST is developing a sensor-laden mannequin—akin to a crash test dummy—that will be used to measure the forces and stresses than an exoskeleton puts on the human body.