The world of exoskeletons keeps improving by leaps and bounds. Now, the aerial porters at Travis Air Force Base, the men, and women who load pallets and then load the pallets on Air Force cargo aircraft, will get a big boost of help thanks to Arizona State University’s (ASU’s) exoskeleton. 

The Air Force porters recently finished an eight-week testing phase with the exoskeletons designed by ASU. 

Dr. Thomas Sugar, the lead developer behind the project at ASU, has over three decades of experience working with robotics. He was asked by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and Air Mobility Command to develop the Aerial Port Exoskeleton, a new piece of equipment that will allow Aerial Porters to perform their duties in a much safer and more efficient manner. 

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Air Force aerial porters discuss the exoskeletons with Dr. Sugar from ASU during testing. (USAF)

“There are small things here and there where the suits can be improved to make them more user friendly,” said Airman 1st Class (A1C) Xaviar Archangel, 60th APS aerial porter. “But there is no danger and these suits don’t have the strength to overpower the user, so I feel completely safe in it,” he specified.

“These suits are pretty light,” Archangel added. “You hardly notice you are wearing them aside from the bulk around the waist. “But other than that, I could honestly wear these for an extended period with no problems if necessary.”

In a YouTube video produced by ASU, Archangel says that the exoskeleton “helps with like [sic] stability, back stability, hip stability, your overall lifting technique.”

“Aerial porters have a high injury rate in the Air Force,” said back in May Tech. Sgt. Landon Jensen, Air Mobility Command innovations, systems, and future command manager, when the two organizations began working together. 

“That’s why we are looking into this kind of solution to help porters perform their duties more safely while also helping reduce the risk of injuries, so they are not suffering later in life.”

The exoskeleton increases a porter’s strength by 30 percent. “Once it’s on you and fitted to you, it’s extremely comfortable. You can wear it all day,” said Jensen.

The exoskeleton is powered by sensors and small motors which boost the lifting strength in the user’s legs during certain movements. 

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Travis AFB aerial porters push a vehicle while wearing the exoskeleton during testing. (USAF)

“We began looking into this equipment because of the outcome of the 2019 Volpe study,” Jensen added. “The Volpe study was a Department of Transportation study that focused on why retired aerial porters alone were costing upwards of $31 million a year on disability benefits.”

“We know that the task that they already had was difficult and we just want to make that task simpler, and easier with less fatigue,” Dr. Sugar said in the video. “When we were finished, the soldiers were asking to keep using them.”

Eventually, the exoskeleton that ASU and the Air Force have been testing, will find civilian and commercial use in the shipping and storage industries. But for now, as far as the Air Force is concerned, this is all about keeping airmen healthy during their military careers and afterward.

“This suit will mitigate that so we don’t have our airmen, when they go on to bigger and better things or if they become a career airman or whatever it is, they don’t walk out of the Air Force broken,” Jensen said.