New Exoskeleton Makes Work At Travis AFB Easier And Less Dangerous

Photo Credit: Senior Airman Cameron Otte / U.S. Air Force

Travis Air Force Base in California is the test site for a futuristic new exoskeleton that aims to make the work of service members easier and reduce injuries. In particular, porters (those who often carry, load, and offload cargo and equipment) are the intended recipients of the exoskeletons. U.S. Air Force porters are subject to injury due to the nature of their work, and often leave the service with long-term injuries.

The load-bearing assistance is called the Aerial Port Exoskeleton.

Why are exoskeletons needed?

The motivation for the creation of the device came from a 2019 study that investigated why so many retired aerial porters were in need of disability benefits. Tech. Sgt. Landon Jensen, the innovation, systems and future command manager of Air Mobility Command said, “We began looking into this equipment because of the outcome of the 2019 Volpe study.”

Experimental exoskeleton in use by porters at Travis AFB.
Photo Credit: Senior Airman Cameron Otte / U.S. Air Force

“The Volpe study was a Department of Transportation study that focused on why retired aerial porters alone were costing upwards of $31 million a year on disability benefits,” Jensen added.

The study concluded that porters were injured frequently, so a solution was required that could reduce these injuries. The Air Mobility Command and Air Force Life Cycle Management Center partnered with Arizona State University to provide this solution, which was to be the Aerial Port Exoskeleton.

“This project would have been impossible without the help of Arizona State University,” said Air Force Life Cycle Management Center program manager 2nd Lt. Aaron Cox. “They focused on the development and manufacturing of the exoskeleton, and without their partnership, we wouldn’t have been able to develop this technology.”

The suits can help a person pick up objects, and take away some of the strain. Without any assistance, these strains can lead to long-term injuries over time.

The system has been put through early testing by service members for a month at Travis AFB, and so far the results are promising, with airmen reportedly finding their work significantly easier.

Porters using exoskeletons to assist in lifting boxes
Photo Credit: Senior Airman Cameron Otte / U.S. Air Force

“This suit’s core function is to help us lift, but can also be used in other ways,” said 1st Class Kyle Sunderman of the 60th APS ramp serviceman. “During a load, fatigue can be a real issue, and these exoskeletons really take a lot of the strain away.”

“There are small things here and there where the suits can be improved to make them more user-friendly,” said 1st Class Xaviar Archangel from the 60th APS aerial porter. “But there is no danger and these suits don’t have the strength to overpower the user, so I feel completely safe in it.”

Thanks to the suits’ lightweight materials and construction, users have reported that they are able to wear them for long periods of time without issues. “These suits are pretty light,” Archangel added. “You hardly notice you are wearing them aside from the bulk around the waist. “But other than that, I could honestly wear these for an extended period with no problems if necessary.”

The Aerial Port Exoskeleton

The exoskeleton itself is not a new idea. The concept has been explored for decades and has remained popular in media and sci-fi movies, but they have only reached a level of practicability that makes them usable in real life in recent years. Making an exoskeleton that can perfectly assist the complex movements of the human body is hard, and doing it with a portable power supply is even harder.

A notable prior attempt was the Hardiman suit developed by General Electric and the U.S. Armed Forces in the 1960s and ’70s. This suit was designed to enable the user to lift 680 kilograms, but it also weighed the same amount itself. It was extremely primitive, and its movements were so jerky and aggressive that it was never used with a real human operating it. It was slow, impractical, and dangerous, and the project was unsuccessful.

left, a drawing of the prototype Hardiman exoskeleton; right, Sigourney Weaver in an exosuit from the film Aliens (1986)
A drawing of the prototype Hardiman exoskeleton, and Sigourney Weaver in an exosuit from the film Aliens. (Photo Credit: 1. General Electric 2. 20th Century Fox / MovieStillsDB)

There have been many more attempts with varying success since then.

The Aerial Port Exoskeleton is much less about lifting massive amounts of weight, and more about slightly assisting and amplifying a human’s abilities.

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It is worn as a piece of the operator’s uniform and is constructed from metal and lightweight composite materials. Arizona State University’s IDEAlab says the exoskeleton is “a wearable hybrid robotic system that assists, enhances, and augments a person in their daily activities around the home and in the workplace.”

The device is still in prototype stages, but if successful, it will be used by U.S. servicemembers throughout the Air Force.