A patch that allows people to control robotic exoskeletons

2nd February 2024
Harry Fowle

Engineers from Korea and the United States have taken a significant step towards integrating human capabilities with robotic exoskeletons, developing a wearable technology that could pave the way for advancements reminiscent of Iron Man. This innovative technology, encapsulated in a stretchable microneedle adhesive patch (SNAP), is designed to enhance the interaction between humans and robotic systems, potentially revolutionising health diagnostics and assistive devices.

The SNAP, roughly the dimensions of a conventional plaster, adheres to the skin and captures minuscule muscle signals. These signals can then be utilised to control robotic exoskeletons, which are designed to replicate and amplify human muscular and skeletal functions. The research, led by Jianliang Xiao, an associate professor at the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at CU Boulder, and Jaewoong Jeong, an associate professor at the School of Electrical Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), offers promising applications in medical diagnostics and the enhancement of human mobility through robotic limbs.

Published in the journal Science Advances, their study introduces the SNAP's unique feature: microneedles. These needles, numbering around 144, are fabricated from silicon coated with gold and measure less than a hundredth of an inch in length, making them virtually invisible and non-invasive. Despite their penetrating capability, the needles are designed to only interact with the skin's top layer, avoiding any discomfort and making the device surprisingly wearable even for extended periods.

The SNAP represents a significant improvement over traditional electromyography (EMG) sensors, which use gel electrodes that can dry out or shift during physical activity, compromising data quality. By contrast, SNAP devices, with their stretchable, polymer base and ultrathin metal wiring, mimic the skin's flexibility, allowing for accurate EMG data collection even during strenuous exercise.

In practical tests, subjects equipped with SNAP devices demonstrated an 18% reduction in muscle exertion when lifting heavy weights, aided by a robotic exoskeleton that responded to muscle flexing signals transmitted by the patches. This synergy between human effort and robotic assistance illustrates the potential of SNAP technology to lighten the physical load of tasks and enhance human performance.

Although further testing with various exoskeletons is required, the technology's promise extends beyond laboratory applications. It harbours the potential to assist individuals with mobility challenges, augment human strength in industrial settings, and contribute to advanced medical diagnostics. This research not only brings us closer to the realms of science fiction but also holds the promise of improving lives through the seamless integration of technology and human capability.

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