Research News

VU expands Army partnership, wins first Pathfinder Project award from Army Futures Command for assistive bionic exosuit

Army Future Commands: Agreement Signing and Tour at Engineering Science Building (Vanderbilt University)
Army Futures Command leadership and staff tour the Engineering Science Building (Vanderbilt University)

By Jenna Somers and Jane Hirtle

Army Futures Command recently awarded Vanderbilt University its inaugural Pathfinder Project, a one-year, $1.2 million investment from the Army Research Laboratory and the Civil-Military Innovation Institute Inc. to support collaborations between researchers and creative soldiers to rapidly innovate high-impact, research-based technologies with a path to commercialization and prompt acquisition of products by the Army.

Pathfinder will support the work of Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Karl Zelik and soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell to develop an exosuit (soft exoskeleton) for soldiers that will augment lifting capabilities and reduce back strain. Formally known as the Soldier Assistive Bionic Exosuit for Resupply (SABER), this design concept will expand on more than two years of informal design sprints, interviews and field exercises between Zelik’s team and soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to understand soldiers’ needs and support their field artillery missions.

Vanderbilt is the first university to have signed an Educational Partnership Agreement with the Army Futures Command, which paved the way for the first Pathfinder Project award. Additionally, Vanderbilt is augmenting soldier-centered innovation via an internal investment through the 2020 Trans-institutional Programs (TIPs) initiative. Directed by Doug Adams, Daniel F. Flowers Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Soldier-inspired Innovation Incubator for Discovering Research-based Solutions TIPs funds shared and mobile instrumentation for rapid prototyping.

In the two years since Vanderbilt’s partnership with Army began, soldiers, researchers and leaders have engaged in near-continuous collaboration. Dozens of faculty and students have observed training exercises at Fort Campbell, hosted soldiers in their laboratories, and explored solutions to meet the needs of the 101st Airborne Division. This use-inspired innovation model is expanding across Tennessee and the Southeast, as reflected by the growing collaborations among Vanderbilt, the Army, private industries and the University of Tennessee.

“Vanderbilt’s partnership with Army is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to totally transform the Army’s approach to research and development and technology transition,” Adams said. “We are building a new model for research and development that is soldier-inspired, that connects the researcher to the stakeholder in ways that heretofore have never been attempted and, most importantly, in ways that quickly provide transformative research-based technological solutions that advance national security interests and improve soldiers’ lives.”

Epitomizing the One Vanderbilt community, the Soldier-inspired Innovation Incubator calls on Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers in neuroscience, engineering, education, emergency medicine, ophthalmology, management and other domains to partner with each other, as well as with soldiers and private industry. Most recently, the transdisciplinary team of Vanderbilt researchers, Soterix Medical and members of the Army who advanced to the finals of the xTechBOLT Competition is a prime example of these pivotal partnerships. SABER is another, bringing together Vanderbilt researchers; the Army; HeroWear, a leading exosuit manufacturer; and Interwoven Design, a leading apparel and product design firm, to create an exosuit for soldiers that is effective, practical and scalable and has a clear path to commercialization and Army acquisition.

According to the U.S. Army Public Health Center, more than 1,000 musculoskeletal injuries are diagnosed in the Army every day, and about a quarter of those are back overuse injuries that degrade the health, effectiveness and readiness of soldiers. Zelik sees exosuits as a means of significantly reducing wear and tear, injury risks and fatigue on soldiers’ backs. Although people typically think of exoskeletons as heavy, bulky, complex robotic machinery, SABER is the exact opposite of that because soldiers need a device that does not obstruct their movement and burden them with extra weight. Therefore, the concept behind SABER is lightweight, low-profile, made mostly of textiles and elastomers, and operationally simple, allowing the soldier to don and doff the device in seconds. Prior exosuits developed by Vanderbilt and HeroWear for industrial users weigh about three pounds and remove 75 pounds of strain from the back each time the user bends or lifts.

“We are excited to be a part of this soldier-centered approach to innovation,” Zelik said. “Rather than coming to the soldiers with a device we designed for them, SABER is unique in that we’ve identified a problem with them and an area of technology in which we have expertise, and we’re working shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers to co-develop and optimize a solution that works specifically to address their needs. We are committed to applied research that can support and protect soldier health.”