Ergonomics done right.®
April 23rd, 2020

Q & A with Exoskeleton Expert Amy Wu

I’m thrilled to highlight the work of Amy Wu, Assistant Professor,  Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Queen’s University, in this installment of “Q&A with Exoskeleton Experts” blog series. The series began after WearRAcon 20 conference went virtual due to COVID-19. I appreciate all the email discussions I’ve had. Past interviews are found below.

Q1:  What sparked your interest in wearable technology and exoskeletons?
A1. Early in my PhD, I had the great opportunity to help test the lower-limb prosthetics prototype in Seattle. It was my first time in the biomechanics world, and I remember being amazed by the resilience of our test subjects and their enthusiasm walking with our powered devices. My doctoral work was focused on understanding the mechanisms of healthy behavior, but I was always motivated by how this baseline can help elucidate our understanding of impaired gait. This interest led to my postdoctoral work in lower-limb exoskeletons as part of the EU-funded Symbitron project.

Q2: Of all the contributions in the wearable technology and exoskeleton field, what do you feel is the most significant?
A2: It’s amazing that the challenges of wearable technologies and exoskeletons have brought together experts from different fields, including engineers, clinicians, and the users themselves. In addition to the hardware and software challenges, we must all work together to develop a device that is considerate of multiple factors, such as structure, form, shared control between the user and the machine, comfort, and more. I really enjoyed watching the first Cybathlon event, a championship in which people with physical disabilities compete against each other, because you could tell how closely the test pilots and exoskeleton developers worked together to achieve their goals. The culmination of their teamwork, whether they ultimately succeeded or not in the competition, was the true winner.

Q3: What contribution has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
A3: The field is somewhat new, so it’s hard to say. In terms of wearable technology that either physically assists or augments, the advances in soft robotics or novel motor designs have increased the potential for the wearable technology and exoskeleton fields. But, in some ways, we are still operating in our traditional silos. The role and contribution of our test subjects is also vital, and while it’s hard to recognize their contribution in typical output, such as papers, they deserve much of the accolade.

Q4: What excites you most about the potential of wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace?
A4: Hopefully, it allows a more diverse workforce and a safer workplace, whether one is working in a factory, in the field, or in an office. I imagine ubiquitous wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace has interesting implications for general use within society. Imagine you could design and build your own wearable or exoskeleton from home, or trade parts with others. We could all be makers!

Exoskeleton Experts Interviews

  • Thomas Sugar got interested in the field when he started developing systems for stroke rehabilitation.
  • Daniel Ferris was inspired by reading comic books as a kid, specifically when Iron Man and Dr. Doom matched their robotic exoskeletons against each other.
  • Karl Zelik used to test the limits of the human body as a kid. Unfortunately, he ended up with broken bones and quite a few stitches. When he discovered biomechanics as an adult, he was hooked.
  • Maury Nussbaum was asked to assess a new contraption in 2012. The results of the project led to one of the first papers on occupational exoskeletons.
  • Jean Theurel said wearable technologies and exoskeletons offer a hew hope to hardworking women and men.
  •  Leigh Stirling said the the future of wearable technology and exoskeletons requires the integration of many contributions across disciplines.  The most significant advances come from individuals working in different areas and then integrating their ideas across communities.