Sagem adds its muscle to exoskeletons

Sagem (Safran) recently signed a partnership agreement to develop exoskeleton technologies with the Percro<sup>*</sup> Laboratory of the <i>Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna</i> (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies) in Pisa, Italy. Christophe Guettier, Systems Architecture Technology Manager at Sagem, tells us about the objectives of this highly promising project.

What exactly is an exoskeleton and what are its applications?

An exoskeleton is an independent electromechanical structure, or sort of external skeleton, that can be worn by a human. It can increase a person's physical capabilities in terms of strength, speed and precision (see inset).
Currently, many experiments are being conducted in the military field, for example to provide assistance for fixing a missile under an aircraft's wing. Ultimately, however, there will be an increase in civil applications, for example in construction, security or for rescue and first-aid missions following natural disasters. In the industrial sector, exoskeleton technologies could be used to increase an operator's load-handling capabilities and reduce the occurrence of musculoskeletal disorders. In the coming years, the use of exo-prostheses will significantly improve the autonomy of people with disabilities or with reduced mobility. A recent event bears witness to this potential; the kick-off for the 2014 Football World Cup was given by paraplegic teenager equipped with a thought-controlled motorized exoskeleton. A whole host of applications are possible, so it is difficult to accurately assess the potential of this highly promising market.

What is the aim of the partnership between Sagem and the Italian laboratory Percro?

Our primary goal is not to develop end-products. We are working on technologies that will improve various applications, and this may later lead to new partnerships with a view to manufacturing certain products.
The research will essentially focus on issues concerning exoskeleton control, balance and stability. Sagem's cutting-edge expertise in the combined fields of stabilization and optronics, as well as the company's knowledge of human physiology and bio-mechanics will be extremely valuable. The Percro Laboratory will provide its expertise in the fields of control, applied mechanics and mechatronics.

What is the European dimension of the project?

The partnership with Percro reflects Safran's strategy of taking a full and active role in European programs by combining its skills and expertise with those of the best European research laboratories. The research that we will be conducting on exoskeletons will enter into the scope of the European Union's "Horizon 2020**" R&D program, whose objective is to demonstrate Europe's capacity to develop breakthrough, cutting-edge technologies.

* Perceptual Robotics Laboratory

** Horizon 2020 is the new European Union research and innovation program. Its funding is focused on three priority areas: scientific excellence, industrial leadership and societal challenges. The program has a budget of €79 billion for the period running from 2014 to 2020.

Exoskeletons: highly complex systems

An exoskeleton could be likened to a sort of mechanical armour. Sensors are fitted to the structure and record the movements of the person wearing it. The information collected is transmitted to the machine's "muscles", which are actually electric motors that reproduce the person's movement, but with increased power. For an exoskeleton to operate correctly, all the motors have to be synchronised together. Working on the exoskeleton's general balance optimizes its "postural recognition" capacity, i.e. the machine's ability to interpret the position the user wants to adopt.