Wearable Devices to Operate Robotic Exoskeletons

Wearable Devices to Operate Robotic Exoskeletons
A team has developed a wearable, stretchy patch about the size of a BandAid, which sticks to your skin and picks up tiny signals coming from human muscles.
Technology Briefing


Another new study published in Science Advances, explains how engineers from Korea and the United States are making real life “Iron Man technology” possible. They have developed a wearable, stretchy patch about the size of a BandAid, which sticks to your skin and picks up tiny signals coming from human muscles. In lab experiments, the researchers showed that humans could use these devices to operate robotic exoskeletons more efficiently.

The team hopes that one day, similar patches will help people with mobility issues move robotic arms or legs, or even assist doctors in diagnosing neurological illnesses. The new design is known as the “stretchable microneedle adhesive patch” (or SNAP). The secret to SNAP comes down to what the researchers call “microneedles.” Each patch is integrated with an array of about 144 needles. The needles are made of silicon coated with gold and are less than a hundredth of an inch long, making them hard to see with the naked eye.

The idea of small needles poking your body may sound scary, but the team’s microneedles only enter the top layer of your skin and aren’t long enough to reach the body’s pain sensors. That makes the patches surprisingly comfortable to wear, even for long periods. The human body, just like many machines, is pulsing with electricity on a near constant basis. Every time you bend your arm, twist your back or even twitch a finger, currents run along your muscle fibers.

Doctors typically monitor these electromyography (or EMG) signals using gel electrodes that stick onto your skin, but the task can get tricky because gel dries up over time, and when people jump or run, the electrodes often slide around, resulting in poor data. In the new study, the researchers set out to design an EMG sensor that could function almost like a part of your body. The team’s SNAP devices are self-contained machines made on a stretchy, polymer base. And they incorporate stretchable serpentine wires fabricated out of ultrathin metal. They also come with their own batteries and are remarkably resilient.

In lab experiments, the team found that the patches collected accurate EMG data, even when human subjects were running on treadmills or doing squats. That’s because the patch deforms in a way very similar to your own skin. Ideally, SNAP could also help people do some very non-human things. To test out those possibilities, the researchers ran a series of experiments in their lab in which they asked real people to take on an everyday task, like lifting a heavy weight from the floor.

In this case, the humans had a little help. They strapped on a machine that looks a bit like a knapsack and provides a robotic boost. These devices reduced the muscles needed to accomplish certain tasks. Today, the researchers still have a lot of work to do before their patches make it into the real world. For a start, they need to test these tools with other kinds of exoskeleton machines.


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