Exoskeleton could give Delta Cargo workers superhuman strength (with video)

Wearable robot power suit looks like a superhero

The beetle is extremely powerful for its size, and well protected, thanks to a rigid outer shell. Delta Air Lines wants to transfer those features to employees in jobs that require heavy lifting, such as handling cargo.

The Wonder Twins, animated characters from the 1970s-era Hanna-Barbera “Super Friends Hour,” would simply touch fists and say, “Form of a beetle.”

Delta (NYSE: DAL) is relying, instead, on technology developed by Sarcos Robotics. Its wearable robotic system can boost the physical capabilities and endurance of users, while preventing injury.

Sarcos borrowed its design from the world of arthropods. Biomimicry — imitating the strategies and systems found in nature to solve human challenges — is a growing area of engineering and industrial design. What distinguishes arthropods, such as insects and crustaceans, from mollusks is that instead of a simple shell they have an exoskeleton with flexible joints that allows a wide range of movement. In addition to serving as external armor for muscles and soft tissues, the exoskeleton increases leverage as the muscles pull from the inside instead of from the outside of an internal skeleton, as in vertebrates.

“The benefit of exploring a partnership like this with Sarcos is this kind of technology can potentially shape the way we work in the future in the airline industry,” Gareth Joyce, Delta’s senior vice president – airport customer service and cargo, said in video produced in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, where Sarcos’ active suit made its public debut.

ABI Research, Oyster Bay, New York, projects the global exoskeleton market will reach $1 billion in revenue in 2022 and $5.8 billion by 2028.

Wearable robotics augment human performance by bearing the weight of what is being carried. The Guardian XO is a full-body, battery-powered mobile system that enables the user to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue, according to Sarcos.

Delta officials say they plan to test the Guardian XO in a pilot location during the first quarter of 2020, giving employees the opportunity to experience the tech in a real-world setting and provide additional feedback on its functionality as Sarcos prepares for its commercial deployment. Potential uses at Delta could include handling freight at Delta Cargo warehouses, moving components at Delta maintenance and repair operations, or lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment.

The suit, which can be put on and removed in 30 seconds, requires relatively little operator training because it supports natural, fluid movement, according to Salt Lake City-based Sarcos.

The Guardian XO will be offered as a Robot-as-a-Service (Raas) model, freeing customers from a large, upfront capital expense to buy the unit or risk it becoming outdated or obsolete, a Sacros spokesman said in an email. The lease package includes maintenance, service and upgrades. The monthly fee will be roughly equivalent to the annual cost of a full-time, $25-an-hour employee with benefits and related overhead expenses.

Delta is the first company to work directly with Sarcos on field tests to determine potential operational uses, but the XO will be made available to a select set of customers as part of an “alpha” deployment early this year, the spokesman said. Companies that are collaborating with Sarcos include Bechtel, BMW, Caterpillar, General Electric and Schlumberger.

Exoskeleton Trends

Only a few thousand exoskeleton suits are in use today, and most are passive, mechanical devices. Toyota has deployed hundreds of the suits, which are more cost-efficient, from California-based Levitate Technologies in plants across the U.S. Other organizations interested in their potential to augment worker productivity in industrial settings include NASA, Boeing and General Motors, ABI Research reported last May.

Sarcos Robotics’ main competitor in the powered-suit category is German Bionic Systems, which is planning to ramp up production this year with the completion of its new factory. Japanese firms Panasonic and ATOUN are also developing advanced systems.

For motorized suits to gain popularity, they need to be more than an enabling technology. They must integrate with other robots and smart wearables and become cloud-enabled platforms for advanced analytics, according to ABI.

“In the industrial internet of things, suits cannot be dumb. Thus, there must be a viable business model, increasing adoption of RaaS, and a demonstrable ability of both providers and end-users to draw insights from collected data,” Senior Analyst Rian Whitton said in the report.

Advances in materials and other components will gradually allow for improved designs that lighten exoskeletons and improve their dexterity and power efficiency, with passive suits serving as the bridge to the active market, he said.