Being a nurse, construction worker, or grocery stocker is a taxing and potentially risky job. Claiming almost 10 percent of lost days of work in Germany are due to lower back problems, Fraunhofer researchers in conjunction with industry partners are developing CareJack, an orthopedic prosthetic embedded with flexible, smart electronics to ensure those lifting heavy loads don't have to go home early.
A typical orthosis is based around a rigid exoskeleton, hampering the flexibility needed in the workplace. CareJack instead features a flexible and light construction that stores the wearer's kinetic energy and releases it when needed to lift and support. In this way, it obviates the need for a heavy external power source.
The active vest, which can be worn over regular clothing, also aids the wearer in maintaining proper posture. Sensors monitor movement patterns and a warning lamp flashes when the user isn't moving optimally – bending over with a rounded back to lift a heavy load rather than squatting and lifting with a straight back, for example. The vest adjusts its rigidity to compensate for the movement, though the wearer can specify how much support they want.
Obviously these electronic systems are as compensation for not using a rigid support system in the first place. However, the electronics and sensors needed for the CareJack vest are miniaturized and flexible enough to embed into the vest to cut down on extra weight or physical resistance.
It's not a far cry to extend the use of CareJack's technology to other fields like the military, where we've reported on numerous designs of human exoskeletons, both in combat and in making difficult tasks easier for longer periods.
Fraunhofer anticipates that a prototype vest will be finished this year and hopes to enter series production in one to two years.
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