At the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology, IIT), researchers have developed an exoskeleton to support the back. The prototype, which was originally developed for railway workers, can also be used in other sectors such as heavy industry and construction. The exoskeleton makes it easier to perform heavy physical work and reduces the risk of injury.
The StreamEXO prototype was tested in a six-month test campaign. It was found that the risk of physical overload was reduced by 50% and muscle fatigue by 30%. The exoskeleton was recently presented at a live demonstration with workers at the port of Tarragona (Spain). According to the IIT, it has now reached an advanced level of technological maturity that allows it to be used in industry.
The StreamEXO exoskeleton was developed as part of the European project STREAM, coordinated by Christian Di Natali, researcher at IIT, and funded by the European Union under Horizon 2020 and the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking. The project is the first major transnational initiative to support research and innovation in the rail sector. The STREAM project presents a new technological solution from Industry 5.0, connecting workers' activities via the Internet of Things with wearable technologies and exoskeletons for the workplace.
The forces generated by the STREAM exoskeleton (StreamEXO) are distributed to the shoulders and legs to support the back when lifting and carrying heavy loads. The StreamEXO has a low weight of 7 kg and is strapped around the body and legs. Thanks to a battery, it can be operated continuously for about six hours.
In addition to the mechanical structure, the device consists of actuators and electronics with control algorithms. The exoskeleton is able to interpret a person's movements in terms of work intensity and automatically apply support strategies that mechanically relieve the wearer. The device allows complete freedom of movement and allows the worker to perform dynamic activities. Workers can use StreamEXO in many ways, including driving vehicles or walking on rough terrain.
Successful practical trials
During a six-month test campaign, the exoskeleton was tested on railway construction sites. The campaign included several laboratory tests and on-site validation with railway workers. The final demonstration involved 15 workers who used the system for about 100 hours in real-world work on railway construction sites. They wore StreamEXO to carry and position concrete pipes weighing between 20 and 30 kg. The results showed that the risk of physical overload of the musculoskeletal system could be reduced by 50%, especially in the lumbar region.