I loved the "Thundercats" cartoon as a child and looked at cat-like humanoids that are fighting evil forces. Whenever their leader was in trouble, he would release the Swede's outside world for "out-of-sight" vision, the ability to see distant or bully events "Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Hooo!" To instantly summon his allies to his position to join the fight. Which kid didn't want these superpowers?
I also wanted the Green Lantern ring, Wonder Woman's bracelet, Captain America's shield and of course Batman's batsuit. I never imagined that 30 years later, when National Superhero Day approaches Sunday, I would design components of my own supersuits.
I didn't really notice this before a few months ago. On that day, my childhood dreams were immediately destroyed and fulfilled. Standing in one line, I noticed that everyone was focused on their smartphones' screens. Suddenly it hit me: I already had the Sword of Omens superpowers. With my smartphone I can watch video of distant events and text my friends to meet. Billions of people now have what used to be considered superpowers.
But what about the physical superpowers? I also wanted them ̵
Supersuit for Ordinary People
Over the past five years, portable exoskeletons that help and aid movement have begun to shift out of research laboratories and into public use. They are still early versions, and science is still in progress, but they include the first more FDA-approved exoskeletons to help spinal cord injury or stroke such as exoskeletons for to keep workers safe and reduce the fatigue of physically demanding jobs.
Toyota even requires workers to wear exoskeletons as mandatory personal protective equipment when performing certain overhead tasks where fatigue and muscle tension can cause injury.
Most people who could potentially benefit from not yet having access to exoskeletons because they are generally too large, too expensive, disturbing too much with other tasks, or not yet comfortable enough to wear. I have been fascinated by the prospect of regular people turning to everyday superheroes.
From my research laboratory, I can walk across the street and within two minutes be at Veterans Affairs Hospital or Vanderbilt University Medicinal Center. The nurses and other doctors who perform strenuous lifting, leaning and carrying out patient care tasks are likely to develop low back pain – or may already experience it. A supersuit can help prevent this pain.
Lower back pain is a complex problem with many potential sources, but a common source is due to stress from repeated forces on the muscles and discs. Most adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime, and this is a leading cause of physical disability. The prestigious medical journal The Lancet recently published a three-part series calling on all – from national and international politicians to funding bodies for researchers, engineers and clinicians – to improve the effectiveness of care and Develop innovative new solutions to combat this global epidemic.
For the past three years, the research team I lead has developed a garment-like exoskeleton that may be more appropriately described as mechanized clothing, a spring-driven exosuit or even just a supersuit. It consists of a vest and shorts made of plain fabric, plus elastic elastic bands and a contact that allows the user to turn on or off the costume.
When switched off, the carrier can move freely and completely, which is typically not the case with exoskeletons. Our dress has no motors or batteries and weighs less than three pounds. No part of it sticks out of the body, so it is easily hidden during everyday wear.
However, it can always be switched on so that the elastic band of the tow carries part of the load that typically passes through the person's back muscles. In a first series of laboratory studies, the package reduced the load on the low back muscles by approx. 20% during lifting and up to 40% during boom, and this reduced the rate at which back muscles fatigued by 30% to 40% on average.
We have recently formed a spinoff company from this research, suitable to name HeroWear LLC, to make this supersuit available to individuals and organizations that may benefit. We expect the product to be on the market by 2020. We have also initiated a multi-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health to integrate portable sensors and machine learning into our supersuits. With these additions, we may be able to develop future suits that monitor stress on the wearer's back and activate the aid automatically when needed.
The goal for many exoskeletons is as a good cartoon supersuit – not to do the work for its bearer, but to improve and support the person's natural abilities. Assistant back muscles are just the beginning. We also designed a similar spring-powered exosuit to help the ankle muscles during running and running. It can help increase endurance or reduce calf muscle and tendon cancer when someone returns from injury.
Similar supersuits may also be designed to support the neck of nurses and surgeons who lean forward for long periods of time during procedures or to reduce arm fatigue for a heavy-duty construction worker or for a parent carrying a child.
Using portable sensors and biomechanical algorithms, supersuits can even be trained to teach proper lifting techniques or to provide resistance training to help with To strengthen weak muscles and improve fitness.
My hope is that 30 years from now – At the time my kids are my age – performance-enhancing supersuits will be just as common and secular in society as smartphones are today. Perhaps people can even forget about the fantastic physical superpowers they provide, and take for granted supersuits individual and societal benefits to health, fitness and well-being.
Karl Zelik is assistant professor of mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University. This article has been reissued from The Conversation, a nonprofit-independent news site dedicated to unlocking academic ideas to the public under a Creative Commons license. Read more articles about tech from experts.