Device designed to give aerial porters enhanced lifting, pushing support for handling big loads with fewer injuries
Although it may not yet be at the level of Iron Man’s exoskeleton, a new power and endurance device from Arizona State University is giving U.S. Air Force aerial porters enhanced levels of safety and strength on the job.
The Aerial Port Exoskeleton, or APEx, provides Air Force aerial porters — responsible for loading pallets and lifting cargo onto aircraft — increased lifting and pushing support.
“The fundamental purposes of APEx are worker wellness and making pushing and lifting easier and safer,” said Thomas Sugar, an ASU professor of systems engineering and primary investigator on the project.
“APEx is an exoskeleton designed to assist people with loading a 10,000-pound pallet and then pushing it onto an airplane.”
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News
The APEx project was created based on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2019 Volpe Center study, which revealed that more than $31 million is spent annually in disability benefits for retired aerial porters, who had a high incidence of musculoskeletal injuries.
“Our unique ideas included designing a device that would allow it to be disengaged and out of the way when walking, running, sitting or crawling to allow free movement and not be a hinderance,” said Sugar. “But when activated, the device assists pushing and lifting with up to 30 newton metersA newton meter is a unit of torque. One newton meter is equal to approximately 0.738 pound-feet. per leg in a lightweight, 8-pound device.”
Working in teams of four during the testing, the porters stacked pallets of cargo weighing up to 10,000 pounds — mostly personal protective equipment and vaccines headed to Asia as part of President Joe Biden’s humanitarian efforts — and loaded them onto planes.
W. Brandon Martin, an Air Force Reserve officer, is an ASU doctoral student who has been developing the device as his PhD project. Martin was on-site at Travis Air Force Base in California for eight weeks during testing in May and June. Martin worked with aerial porters from the 60th Aerial Port Squadron to monitor APEx performance and make adjustments based on worker feedback.
In speaking about the testing process, Martin said, “The awesome thing was that the people who had already worn the exoskeleton were giving pointers to the individuals who had not, so they developed their own institutional knowledge of how to use the robot.”
Tech. Sgt. Landon Jensen, transportation manager from Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, worked with the team through development. He managed the testing operations at Travis.
“The first time I tried it on was at ASU,” said Jensen. “When I put it on, I realized there was more potential there than I thought there was originally. Their original design of the suit was very close.”
During testing, Jensen said the porters involved provided great feedback.