Ergonomics done right.®
April 27th, 2020

Q & A with Exoskeleton Expert Marcia O’Malley

I set out to meet with exoskeleton researchers when the WearRAcon 20 conference went virtual due to COVID-19. I’ve had an amazing response and am impressed by their backgrounds and a common trend I found. Like Dr. Marcia O’Malley, Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rice University, most were drawn to the field when they were either a child or a teenager.

Q1: What sparked your interest in wearable technology and exoskeletons?
A1: In high school, I did a research project  to lengthen the limbs of individuals with physical abnormalities (Ilizarov method) using a mechanical frame that screwed into the bone. I was fascinated that a mechanical contraption could positively impact human health. While an undergraduate at Purdue, I worked in a lab that designed and built a six degree-of-freedom knee simulator that was used to evaluate the performance of prosthetic knee implants compared to cadaver specimens. Again, mechanical devices were improving human health by allowing for better design of prosthetic implants. I used to be a dancer, and I’ve always been interested in human movement. Wearable technologies and exoskeletons bring together all of my interests in human movement and the ability to improve human health through the design of mechanical systems. I studied haptics and robotics in graduate school, and now my research lab develops robotic technologies that rely on physical interaction between humans and machines to enhance human performance.

Q2: Of all the contributions in the wearable technology and exoskeleton field, what do you feel is the most significant?
A2: I think the potential to restore physical capabilities to those who have suffered physical or neurological injuries is hugely significant. People can regain independence in their daily lives, which is critical to their productivity and psychological health.

Q3: What contribution has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
A3. We don’t yet know how to use robotic exoskeletons to achieve better rehabilitation outcomes than traditional intensive physical therapy in individuals that have suffered neurological injury. We should be able to use the vast array of sensing technologies that can be incorporated into exoskeleton robotic devices to monitor kinematics, muscle activity, and brain activity. This should allow the robotic device to maximize the efficiency of rehabilitation, but we don’t know how to do this effectively yet.

Q4: What excites you most about the potential of wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace?
A4: I’m excited that our culture is becoming more accepting of wearables, exoskeletons, and robotic systems. By welcoming these technologies that can work in concert with us, we have the potential to enhance our own performance and productivity.

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.