Occupational Exoskeletons

Last Updated: January 27, 2020
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Exoskeletons are an emerging technology that are currently used mainly in 3 domains: military, medical/rehabilitation, and occupational/industrial. Military applications are controlled by the U.S. Futures Command. Medical/Rehabilitation applications are controlled by the FDA and the VA. The Ergonomics department of the USAPHC concerns itself with the occupational/industrial applications of exoskeletons.

Bionic exoskeletons used for occupational/industrial purposes have potential as a possible solution to many Work-related MusculoSkeletal Disorder (WMSD) injuries.  The workforce in the United States is aging; bionics could be used as an aid for those aging workers to keep them physically at their jobs. The disabled using bionic exoskeletons as advanced prosthetics could lead to a greater nuber of occupations that they can perform.  Able-bodied workers, as well as the aging and disabled, could use bionic exoskeletons to enhance their performance and endurance. But exoskeletons are a rapidly changing technology; with any new technology there are potential user risks involved that need to be addressed before offering it to the Army worker.  Exoskeletons specifically have physical ergonomic and psychological human factor concerns.

Just what an exosleleton is has been under intense debate by standards committees. An exoskeleton has been called Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) by the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, as it mitigates WMSD injury risk that the worker is exposed to. However, it can also be labeled as a tool for human enhancement to complete a work task.

For more information check out this White Paper:

Ergonomic Overview of Exoskeletons


Exoskeleton FAQs

Q. What does an exoskeleton do exactly?

A. When a person does something physical, from tasks ranging from lifting a heavy weight to just walking down the street, they are using energy stored in their body (called metabolic energy). An exoskeleton, no matter if it's passive or active, decreases the metabolic energy the user needs. 

Q. What's the difference between Passive and Active Exoskeletons?

A. Passive exoskeletons utilize internal sources for power, such as springs, elastic, etc. Active Exoskeletons utilize external sources for power, such as electric batteries or compressed air powering motors that support loads at joints.

Q. Are they expensive?

A. At the moment, very. But like the home computer, as exoskeletons become more and more popular the initial cost is likely to go down. Currently a lower-body exoskeleton used for walking rehabilitation of patients suffering from stroke or spinal cord injury can cost anywhere from $69,000 to $85,000. An popular upper-body exoskeleton used in auto manufacturing can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000.

Q. Can it help decrease my injury costs?

A. Definately, depending on your application. Toyota, for instance, has mandated upper-body exoskeletons for its workers who have their arms raised above their heads all day. For those emplyees it works well, decreasing the injury risk they are exposed to. For workers not doing work above thier heads all day, it won't help that much.

Q. Can I wear an exoskeleton throughout my 8 hour shift?

A. You can, but it might be either uncomfortable or in the way if you do multiple tasks. Most workers that currently use exoskeletons do not.

Q. Is an exoskeleton Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or a tool that enhances human capibilities (i.e. strength, endurance, etc.)?

A. An exoskeleton is both. Currently most exoskeletons are PPE, protecting workers from musculoskeletal injuy risk. Engineers are developing smaller, active exoskeletons that can enhance some user's capabilities.