Gravity can be a pain, literally. Any of you who work in a factory, lab, operating room, or any other setting that requires repetitive tasks with outstretched arms will, I’m sure, agree. Working with extended arms for hours on end can be tiring, especially if you are holding equipment or tools that are necessary to get the job done. Are there any solutions to this problem (other than a gym membership and some upper body work)? Why yes, there soon will be - an innovative exoskeletal arm support, the X-Ar™ from Equipois Inc. will be available sometime in early June and hopes to banish overexertion and fatigue for good. The revolutionary support system is based on the same technology that is used to stabilize camera equipment (the same inventor is responsible for both technologies). The product renders your arm weightless, without hindering range of motion or precision. The system is completely mechanical (consumes no power), so it can be used in a variety of settings and easily transported from one place to another. The future is here people; first it’s an exoskeletal arm support, and the next thing you know, in addition to choosing our outfits for the day, every morning we will be choosing which of our robotic limbs to plug into our arm socket.
According to the Equipois website, “[…] a large number of work-related musculoskeletal disorders are attributable to occupational hand tool use, resulting in unnecessary pain, lost workdays, and rising costs.” Companies spend billions of dollars every year on injuries related to overexertion, not to mention that workers with tired arms are less efficient. Whether it’s a factory or a dentist’s office, Equipois thinks its new product will change the way people work for the bargain price of $2000-$3000. This CNN interview with the company’s CEO and VP of Technology gives an overview of the product and shows it in action.
As you can see, the device is mounted on the back of a chair, the user’s lower arm is inserted into the cuff, and the work begins. The device makes use of company’s patented ZeroG™ technology, incorporating a system of springs to counterbalance the weight of the arm, while three laterally articulating joints ensure free range of motion. As for extension, the company says that the user can reach forward as far as they can without the device, and vertically from hip to shoulder height when in the seated configuration. There are several options for docking the device in addition to the chair mounting seen in the video, including floor stand and bench top options. The amount of support provided is adjustable, with most users preferring 1/3 actual arm weight, according to the company. This video from Equipois shows the product in various settings, from a workbench to a kitchen table, and illustrates the versatility of the product.
Many of you might be wondering why a company would bother with this when someday soon robots will be doing all the work anyway. In a company press release the CEO says "We believe that the human hand guided by the human brain is the most powerful and versatile tool ever created. The x-Ar enhances that tool, rather than trying to mimic or replace it, and should significantly impact the workplace across diverse industries." At the moment, I have to agree. Robots do not yet possess the ability to make sophisticated decisions, and in many cases a human armed with bionic assist devices might be preferable. Besides, the most exciting thing about this product is the potential for future uses as a medical assist device, which the CEO briefly mentions at the end of the CNN interview.
The company hopes to one day help brain-injury patients by connecting the device to a brain control interface, which would allow the patient to be in command of their limbs via the exoskeletal device. Now that would be pretty cool. And why stop there - he mentions an entire suit that could aid in full body movement for disabled people, or even the elderly who can still control their movement, but have lost muscle mass.
Yet another application that he doesn’t mention, and perhaps one that is more immediately feasible, lies in physical therapy. For example, after a shoulder surgery, a patient could be fitted with a device that counterbalances the weight of the arm completely, so no stress will be placed on the surgery site. With the ability to adjust the amount of assistance from the device, the patient could slowly rebuild muscle and motility of the joint by decreasing the amount of counterbalance over time. Going one step further, sensors could be embedded into the device that could monitor the patient’s progress and that data could be sent straight to the doctor or physical therapist. Allowing the patient to control his or her own recovery, while being monitored by the doctor could revolutionize physical therapy, and probably the treatment of many other diseases as well. Patients with debilitating muscular diseases could benefit from the device as it could allow them to remain independent longer than current options.
In sum, this technology is pretty cool, but it will be even better as it is adapted to more sophisticated applications. It has come a long way after all; from Steadicam, to assembly line assist device, now to dynamic arm support. A few more improvements here and there, and who knows what it will be used for next.
[image credits: equipoisinc.com]
[source credits: equipoisinc.com, money.cnn.com]