We featured several entries in this year’s Dyson Awards, including this noise-canceling device for your window, these bone-conducting glasses, and this clever water-use display. Now it’s time to talk about the winner, which the foundation announced today.
The Titan Arm is an exoskeleton arm developed by engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania. It lets people lift 40 pounds more than normal and assists those recovering from injury.
The students, all mechanical engineers, started developing the Titan in their junior year. They were inspired by exoskeleton products already on the market, like the lower-body Ekso Bionics unit and the Cyberdyne “Hal” suit from Japan. Unlike those products, though, they wanted to build something cheaper that could be used in everyday situations. Ekso Bionics’s unit costs more than $100,000 and is for paraplegics. Rather, the Arm is aimed at “occupational lifters,” like warehouse workers, or people who are getting through physical therapy.
“We wanted to have something that hospitals could purchase many of, so they could do a lot of physical therapy,” says Nick McGill, one of four team members.
The Titan has three systems. The first is structural and includes a repurposed backpack frame and scuba gear. “We built an arm that goes out shoulder length. It connects to your arm, and works in union with your skeleton and helps distribute the weight,” McGill says.
Then there’s an “actuator” system–pulleys that run from the arm across the back. And finally there are some electronics, to power the whole device. Users control the Titan with a joystick in the left hand, and there’s also an option to lock the arm in place, for sustained lifting. “If you’re a warehouse worker and want to lift up a package 90 degrees, you could lock it in place and carry it for a longer period of time,” McGill says.
The team, which also includes Nicholas Parrotta, Elizabeth Beattie and Nikolay Vladimirov, hasn’t decided what to do with $45,000 first prize (the university also gets $16,000). McGill says they have to decide whether to try and commercialize the Arm. If not, they could create an open-source platform that others can add to and improve. Either way, he hopes any product would cost less than $10,000.
The Titan also contains sensors, allowing therapists to track range of motion and strength levels among people recovering from injury. “We can see that ‘Jerry’ who came in last week and could only move his arm between 20 and 60 degrees can now move his arm between 15 and 75 degrees,” McGill says.
He adds: “We don’t see [the arm] as making humans superhuman, so much as making the injured human again.”