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A trio of researchers based out of the Technical University of Munich and Technical University Darmstadt in Germany has engineered a soft, pneumatic exoskeleton that supports a wearer's elbows, thus making it much easier to carry heavy loads.

John Nassour, Guoping Zhao, and Martin Grimmer described their invention and demonstrated its effectiveness in a new paper published to the journal Scientific Reports.

"Carry", as the researchers dubbed their exoskeleton, consists of two pneumatic actuators that affix to a user's elbows, held in place by straps around the upper arm, upper chest, shoulders, and wrists. When filled with air, the actuators help the wearer flex at the elbow joint.

To test the device, the researchers had twelve male subjects hold and carry 5, 10, and 15 kilogram dumbbells with their elbows flexed at 90 degrees when wearing and not wearing the exoskeleton. Muscle activity, metabolic rate, and fatigue were monitored.

"With Carry providing... assistance, we found reductions of up to 50% for the muscle activity, up to 61% for the net metabolic rate, and up to 99% for fatigue," the researchers reported.

They also noted that the exoskeleton was only operating at roughly 33% of its capacity. So it could be ramped up to help users carry even heavier loads.

The current model of Carry is only a prototype. Nassour, Guoping, and Grimmer have numerous tweaks in mind for a more finalized product, which they estimate will weigh anywhere from 2.7 to 3.8 kilograms and could aid anyone who regularly picks up and moves heavy objects.

Exoskeletons are already a $1 billion market worldwide, and are growing increasingly common in automobile manufacturing.

Source: Nassour, J., Zhao, G. & Grimmer, M. Soft pneumatic elbow exoskeleton reduces the muscle activity, metabolic cost and fatigue during holding and carrying of loads. Sci Rep 11, 12556 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-91702-5

This article originally ran on realclearscience.com.

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