Ergonomics done right.®
March 31st, 2020

Q & A with Exoskeleton Expert Tom Sugar

The WearRAcon 20  was one of the many conferences that went virtual due to COVID-19.   As the Director of Research and a board-certified ergonomist for VelocityEHS, I was looking forward to attending the conference (in person) to meet with leaders in exoskeleton technology, watch robotic demonstrations, and learn how these devices are being used in industry to improve worker health and safety and improve productivity.

Now more than ever, we’re lucky to have advanced technologies. Even though we are all confined to our homes for the next month or so, we can still learn and engage with others. Though it is from afar and not the same as being together in one space, it works and will keep us connected during this crisis. In spirit of WearRAcon20,  I connected online with a handful of experts in exoskeleton technology. Over the course of the next few weeks,  I’ll share key points from each interview.

Thomas Sugar

Today, let me introduce you to Dr. Thomas Sugar, Professor in Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, The Polytechnic School, at Arizona State University. He also serves as the Associate Dean for The Honors College at ASU Polytechnic. His primary research interests include wearable robotics to improve worker wellness and improve the quality of life, with a focus on compliant wearable robots using tunable springs and pneumatic muscleactuators. Tom is also heavily involved in WearRAcon.

  • Q1:  What sparked  your interest in wearable technology and exoskeletons?
  • A1: In 2004, the Human Machine Integration Laboratory started developing systems for stroke rehabilitation and mobility for lower limb amputees. To assist gait, we built a Robotic Tendon, a spring based system, to store and release energy. We also developed a powered ankle-foot orthosis and a bionic ankle.
  • Q2: Of all the contributions in the wearable technology and exoskeleton field, what do you feel is the most significant contribution?
  • A2: I think one must develop lightweight motor technology, sensor-based control, and systems that work in synchrony with the user.  For us, we designed phase controllers that were able to effectively put positive power into the gait cycle.
  • Q3: What contribution has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
  • A3: The passive hip and shoulder systems are helping to reduce fatigue and are making a difference in industry today.
  • Q4: What excites you most about the potential of wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace?
  • A4: I am excited to see the new quasi-active systems that are mostly passive, but put a bit of energy into the human motion at the correct time.

Check back next week to learn how Dan Ferris from the University of Florida, got interested in the field.