Manual handling jobs are a pain in the neck, quite literally. In industries that involve heavy lifting and carrying, back, neck and other injuries account for over $10 billion in medical expenses annually. This holds true even in the military, where soldiers are often required to carry supplies weighing upward of 40kgs, and where the risk of injury is as serious as it is expensive.
Enter the exoskeleton – an external wearable device that works in tandem with the user to augment human performance. While exoskeletons have been around for decades - the earliest prototypes emerging as far back as the ‘60s - they have traditionally been limited in their flexibility, comfort and interaction with the user. To tackle this, a Victoria-based team of research engineers led by Associate Professor Daniel Lai is exploring ways to make these devices more intuitive by improving human-machine interaction. Their research was given its initial boost by a Collaborative Research Grant received from the Defence Science Institute (DSI).
Collaborating with research groups in the Institute of Health and Sports (IHES) at Victoria University (VU), Daniel’s background in biomedical sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and wearable assistive technology aligned perfectly with the project. Daniel and his team leveraged AI to create deep learning models for predicting when the user intends to move, thereby improving the synchronisation between exoskeleton and human intention. They monitored movement to determine patterns in motion focusing on spinal movements during manual handling tasks. The end result will be an adaptive active spine exoskeleton that will help to enhance soldier manual handling capability.
Associate Professor Daniel Lai
“In defence, wearable technologies could assist in monitoring, minimising injuries and improving recovery for human personnel. These new assistive technologies would be enhanced with AI to increase their efficacy. The technology could also be applied to workers in defence manufacturing such as ship hulls or aircraft frames or modified for early detection of biochemical effects on human performance,” he explains.
For Daniel and his team, the DSI grant proved instrumental in furthering their research. It enabled the hiring of research assistants to gather larger sets of data for analysis, allowing the team to make statistically significant conclusions.
The flow-on from this project has led to work with Australian Unity through APR.Intern, on wearable assistive devices in aged care. Daniel is also currently in conversations with SAFRAN, a key player in the defence sector, following a workshop supported by DSI.
“This grant has allowed me to develop further collaborations with researchers from academic institutions such as RMIT and University of Melbourne. The project, and indeed engagement with DSI has provided insights on working with defence related problems and has opened doors to the DST network,” says Daniel, whose involvement with DSI continues through his current position as DSI Liaison Manager for Victoria University. Dedicated to his role, Daniel helps facilitate research ties between Defence and academia to strengthen and empower Australia’s defence capabilities.
Daniel Lai's is one of many successful stories of research progression to come out of DSI, demonstrating how research outcomes are transferable and of value across multiple sectors not just defence. DSI encourages researchers to make contact and leverage the many grant and support options available to advance their research.
*Introductory image used for illustrative purposes only