Researchers have unveiled the product of a technology research partnership between the Army and researchers at Vanderbilt University this week: a lightweight exosuit to boost soldiers’ weightlifting capability while reducing the risk of a back injury.
Funded by a $1.2 million Pathfinder Project grant from Army Futures Command, Vanderbilt researchers have collaborated with soldiers at Fort Campbell over the last year to develop technology inspired and informed directly by soldiers’ needs in the field.
Pathfinder research is aimed at working within the Army’s acquisition process to streamline the pathway from innovation to development to end use by servicemembers.
“As the military seeks to reinvigorate its research and development ecosystems, Vanderbilt and other partners in Tennessee can lead with soldier-inspired research innovations that will be rapidly commercialized by startups and corporate partnerships,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said.
This week, Senator Marsha Blackburn visited Vanderbilt’s three-story, 13,000 square foot Center for Innovation and Design dubbed The Wond’ry where the innovations were developed.
Blackburn is a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, and has backed funding for the project.
“The Pathfinder program is a way that we are bringing our active duty military into the innovation lab to solve problems that they are facing in real time as they are carrying out their missions to defend and protect,” Blackburn said, during a news conference at the lab.
She says innovations developed through the partnership will also help the United States compete with tech-advanced competitors like China.
Vanderbilt’s partnership with the Army began three years ago. Since then, faculty and students have observed training exercises at Fort Campbell, hosted soldiers in Vanderbilt laboratories, and explored solutions to meet the needs of the 101st Airborne Division.
The project has resulted in new technologies that are on the way to commercialization with a path toward acquisition by the Army: an assistive bionic exosuit to help reduce back strain and injury potential when soldiers lift heavy objects, and the STAR Hammer, a specialized hammer designed for more efficient stake assembly and removal.
Doug Adams, associate provost for research at Vanderbilt, says the Army is now investing in additional testing with soldiers.
“At Fort Knox, they showed up, the soldier had put the suit on, and within minutes, they were doing their mission and there was almost no training associated with using it,” Adams said, of the exosuit.
Blackburn also said Vanderbilt researchers are exploring capabilities of 3D printers to enable production of replacement parts on-site when soldiers are deployed.
“We’ve done extensive testing at Fort Campbell and also Fort Knox, and so now they want to look at collecting more and more data and more feedback from soldiers because they want to get it right the first time when they go into production,” Adams said. “It’s that listening to the soldiers about what they really need and then incorporating that into the innovation and the design that really sets that technology apart.”