Two Louisiana State University professors are partnering with Rutgers University to develop wearable exoskeletons to be used by the construction industry in an effort to decrease work site injuries, an LSU press release reported.
The professors teaming up with Rutgers University to create this integrated, multidisciplinary approach to workplace safety and efficiency are LSU Bert S. Turner Department of Construction Management Assistant Professor and Graduate Coordinator Chao Wang and LSU Professor of Industrial Engineering Fereydoun Aghazadeh. Along with Rutgers, Wang and Aghazadeh recently received a $150,000 planning grant from the National Science Foundation, giving them a year to create a team of researchers ready to compete for a $3 million research grant in March.
This planning grant was awarded to the LSU professors as a part of the NSF’s 10 Big Ideas- Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier (FW-HTF) program to develop exoskeletons, and as of now LSU’s team is in good standing to be awarded the spring research grant, as there are few construction companies that have actually adopted any type of exoskeleton technology.
The FW-HTF project’s three goals are to “develop lightweight, flexible, high-performance, personalized wearable exoskeletons for construction workers; develop machine learning-based human skill modeling and training in construction; and initiate new cross-disciplinary collaboration and foster engagement with industry partners and stakeholders.”
Wang, who is serving as this project’s principal investigator has found that there are a few exoskeleton products currently available on the market, but they mainly target manufacturing and industrial settings, commenting that because of a construction site’s dynamic and complicated setting, the concept of introducing an exoskeleton is quite new.
Though, the concept is seen as heavily-needed by many wanting to mitigate work site accidents. According to OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, one in 10 construction site workers are injured each year and 21%of worker fatalities are in construction. Aghazadeh attributes construction injuries to three primary reasons: “Number one, they are tired. Number two, the task is beyond their capacity. Number three, they are not properly trained. If they don’t have the capacity to do the physical work, how can we enhance their physical capability? We can give them more power. This project is all about that.”
The LSU professors, Wang and Aghazadeh will study the individual tasks performed by each crew member on a construction project in order to develop and train a single exoskeleton to perform different construction tasks. They will also determine how much power should be given to the exoskeleton and whether to focus its support on the upper or lower area of the body.
The fact that the utilization of exoskeletons in a construction environment is a near-foreign concept is attributed to the quantity of tasks performed by your average construction worker, such as climbing stairs, walking, squatting, and reaching. These foundational tasks are a lot to teach an exoskeleton when compared to an exoskeleton used in a manufacturing facility that completes one task, albeit 1000 in a day.
Therefore, the challenge for Wang and Aghazadeh will be to design an exoskeleton intelligent enough to recognize what tasks its construction worker is engaged in, adjust its power level accordingly, and alter its control strategy to most-effectively assist with the work.
It’s not just the efficiency or safety of the work that will be benefited by the addition of construction exoskeletons but the longevity of the worker as well. The team’s motivation for their project originated from the workforce shortage in the United States, where there are an abundance of construction jobs but not enough workers with many retiring due to injury.
Wang expresses the project’s hopes- saying, “With the help of robotics, these older workers can still perform. That way, when younger workers come in, they can learn from the older, more experienced workers who have more knowledge that can be passed on. The idea down the line is that anyone can buy this in a Home Depot or Lowe’s, and they’ll come in different sizes. We want one product that can be smart enough to fit anyone with different tasks.”
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