The idea of a functional exoskeleton is usually the stuff of science-fiction and superheroes. But a team out of Rogue Community College, which calls itself ExoHand, is bringing science fiction to industrial applications.
The big idea is an exoskeletal hand that workers from a wide spectrum of industries can use for any job that requires significant grip strength. With a pneumatic grip applying 160 pounds per square inch of force, the team envisions a tool that will help workers finish the job efficiently and effectively, without the danger of injury.
The hand, which attaches to the forearm and acts as a support system for actions that industrial workers make on the job, will use a system of pneumatics to lighten the load on a part of the body that industrial workers use often enough to create painful ailments, like carpal tunnel.
For the team, comprised of Cesar Naverette and Landon Hunter, both undergraduates in mechanical engineering, the problem strikes close to home.
“I used to work in irrigation and as a plumber, and after years of doing that, I was having issues gripping stuff and also holding a certain amount of weights with my hands,” said Naverette. “And my wife was commenting, you guys, what are you going to do when you get older?”
After years in the industry, Navarette began to suffer from a highly common ailment: carpal tunnel syndrome. The condition affects 3 million Americans every year—often those of the highest socioeconomic need for whom there is no option but to work through the pain.
“I went to the doctor, and they told me about it, and they prescribed me some lotion to numb the pain away,” Navarette said. “But that's not my whole issue—the strength of the pain I can manage. It was that losing the strength was affecting my work.”
There are different types of illnesses that affect strength in the hands. Similarly, according to Navarette, solutions for repairing those ailments often involve surgeries, and many industrial workers lack the financial support or the insurance to cover the cost.
To Navarette, a tool like ExoHand is an indispensable option for those who need to be healthy and stay on the job.
Landon Hunter sees that the opportunity for ExoHand is pervasive. An injury in his youth left him without full nerve function in his left hand. ExoHand could help him—and anyone who struggles with nerve impairment—to regain lost function. “Something like this would be really useful for me because my feeling all the way along this part of my hand is mostly gone,” he said, demonstrating with his hand. “So something like this would be really useful if I work in an environment where I was gripping with my left hand a lot.”
The idea could not only help people recover from injury or regain lost function. The ExoHand team believes it could actually help prevent painful conditions before they start.
“I want it to be a support system,” Navarette said. “And theoretically, I want to the point where it's all pressure where it's touch sensitive. All you have to do is apply a little bit of pressure between your fingers and elbows.”
But the team isn’t beyond dreaming of what ExoHand could become. Maybe, one day, ExoHand could help humans do superhuman things. “Instead of having to reach out for a wrench, you could use your hand, literally grip the bolt to increase the strength and unscrew it and use your arm as leverage and just take the bolt off,” Navarette said.
You know, the stuff of superheroes.