Ergonomics done right.®
April 17th, 2020

Q & A with Exoskeleton Expert Leia Stirling

My interviews with exoskeleton researchers continues. I began reaching out to leaders in the field when the WearRAcon 20 conference went virtual due to COVID-19. I appreciate the conversations I’ve had thus far (past interviews are below), and learning about what inspired them. Today, please meet Leia Stirling, Associate Professor, Industrial and Operations Engineering, from the University of Michigan.

Q1: What sparked your interest in wearable technology and exoskeletons?
A1: Two things inspired me. From a young age I was interested in space travel. Did you know spacesuits are passive exoskeletons that provide life support to astronauts? However, these suits have mobility limitations that arise from the complexity of providing a pressurized vessel for life support. I was also influenced by my dad’s work in vocational rehabilitation. Some of his clients have disabilities that prevent them from completing work they once used to do. Advancing wearable technology provides a way to measure and support motion in new ways to achieve our goals, whether in our home or work environment.

Q2: Of all the contributions in the wearable technology and exoskeleton field, what do you feel is the most significant?
A2: This is a difficult question. I think 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 integrated those ideas across communities. Advances in materials, batteries, sensors, and motors have all enabled researchers to have platforms for answering questions about designing controls and developing human-machine interfaces. All the current advances are following in the steps of many other researchers inside and outside the exoskeleton research community.

Q3: What contribution has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
A3: We are still in the early phase of learning how humans interact with exoskeletons. There are many studies that have rightly looked at small sample sizes to verify functionality of exoskeleton mechanical designs. I am excited about the recent papers looking at larger sample sizes to explore and better understand the variability in human behavior. Understanding the variability emergent across different people can lead to systems that are optimized for and adaptable to individual preferences and strategies.

Q4: What excites you most about the potential of wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace?
A4: There is a lot of excitement about automation in the workplace and the home. However, many tasks are better done by people than machines. Further, it would be quite boring to live in a place where people have nothing to do. I am excited to think about the use cases for exoskeletons to support work so people can engage in activities that they feel most useful and relevant. By using wearable technology and exoskeletons to reduce risk of injury and increase capability of the human, we have the potential to increase individual engagement and can create more desired jobs.

Read my past 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.