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April 30th, 2020

Q & A with Exoskeleton Expert He (Helen) Huang

Thanks to all the researchers who have shared their stories during this blog series. Even though I was unable to attend the WearRAcon 20 conference because it went virtual due to COVID-19, I still learned a lot and connected with many. In my last interview, Dr. He (Helen) Huang, Jackson Family Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, North Carolina University, shares her excitement for intelligent exoskeletons in the interview below.

Q1: What sparked your interest in wearable technology and exoskeletons?
A1: As a graduate student sixteen years ago, I was tasked to  develop a wearable robot,  now called an exoskeleton, during a research project. We combined that with virtual reality for stroke rehabilitation.

Q2: Of all the contributions in the wearable technology and exoskeleton field, what do you feel is the most significant?
A2: As we are dealing with a human-machine hybrid systems, all the components in the wearer-machine systems are equally important. From my perspective, the general concept on human-centered design, control/optimization, computing, and evaluation make the wearable robots possible and useful.

Q3: What contribution has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
A3: I would say neural-machine interfaces. Essentially we hope the exoskeleton, prosthesis, or other types of wearable machines could coordinate with human wearers seamlessly as if it’s  part of the human body. A neural interface provides a direct communication pathway between humans and wearable machines and enables embodiment and wearer-machine symbiosis.

Q4: What excites you most about the potential of wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace?
A4: Current exoskeletons in the workspace have been designed mainly to reduce physical load, fatigue, and injuries in humans. I am excited about the future intelligent exoskeletons that can teach or guide the worker in use of a new tool  or problem solving. The intelligent exoskeletons may also cooperate with the human wearer in task performance.

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.
  • Amy Wu enjoyed watching the first Cybathlon event, a championship in which people with physical disabilities compete against each other. She said  you could tell how closely the test pilots and exoskeleton developers worked together to achieve their goals.
  • Marcia O’Malley’s interest in exoskeletons began in high school when she worked on a project to lengthen the limbs of individuals with physical abnormalities.