Tom Sugar doesn’t consider himself a modern-day Iron Man, but he does marvel at how his specialty — wearable robotics or exoskeletons — has taken off and achieved something of blockbuster proportions. Sugar has worked in thethe field since 1999, when he first set up Arizona State Univesity’s Human Machine Integration Lab.
“I’ve never seen wearable robotics as hot as now,” said Sugar, a professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU’s Polytechnic campus. “When I was at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, everyone was there — Amazon robotics, Google robotics and new companies like Robotis. The conference normally attracts 1,500 people. There were 2,700 this time. It’s just booming.”
That interest in exoskeletons has expanded at ASU too, which hired two new assistant professors in robotics for the Polytechnic campus and one for the Tempe campus. It's a far cry from the days when Sugar was the only robotics professor at ASU.
In his lab, a rectangular room that is part tech shop and part tinkerer’s paradise with gadgets, test instruments and tools strewn about, Sugar leads a team of ASU researchers and students in building devices to help people overcome a physical disability or provide enhanced performance.
Today, Sugar and his collaborators have five workable, wearable robotic systems and one that has graduated from the lab and moved on to commercial applications. The devices run the gamut, from a wearable jet-pack device that can boost a runner’s speed, to another backpack device designed to alleviate the physical stress of carrying a heavy load, to a small refrigerated suit to keep soldiers cool in a desert environment.
“The overall goal is to build a device that will augment or assist a user,” Sugar said of his exoskeletons. “It doesn’t have to be only for disabled people. It can be able-bodied people, soldiers, obese people or frail people.”
The challenge is to provide a benefit that outweighs the, well, weight that the device adds.
“Ninety-nine percent of the robots add weight, like 10 to 15 pounds for motors and batteries and sensors, but don’t pay for the weight penalty,” Sugar says. “So when you put it on, it’s actually harder to perform than when you are not wearing it.”
Sugar and his group have come up with two innovative designs that achieve “metabolic augmentation,” which means they overcome their weight gain and improve the user’s performance.
“There are only two groups in the world that have achieved metabolic augmentation. A group at MIT and us,” Sugar said.