The University of Michigan’s STARX team, a three-year-old group that builds strength-augmenting robotic suits — otherwise known as exoskeletons — hosted the first Applied Collegiate Exoskeleton competition this year. Founder Kevin Rabideau, a 2016 U-M alum, has always been fascinated by this use of technology.

“I just think it’s a cool and exciting thing,” Rabideau said. “You’re using machines to make people run faster and lift more weights and reduce strain. It feels very science-fictiony and exciting to have something that can make you run faster than other people.”

At ACE, students who share Rabideau’s enthusiasm for exoskeletons came together to share their hard work. Along with the University, teams from Michigan State University, University of Nebraska Omaha, Colorado School of Mines and Iowa State University participated in the competition.

ACE consisted of a design review, an endurance test and an obstacle course based on tests firefighters must complete. STARX President Declan Winship, an Engineering senior, said strength-augmenting exoskeletons have a tremendous number of applications, but ACE’s focus was on search and rescue.

“Our specific application on the team is search and rescue because a firefighter carries very heavy equipment and, in some cases, has to carry a person out of a burning building,” Winship said. “We believe that if we can get search-and-rescue people to where they need to be, making them less tired in the process, they can make better decisions and be better able to react if things suddenly get more dangerous.”

Beyond increasing human strength, exoskeletons can also be rehabilitative, helping people with paralysis or muscle weakness attain mobility. Robotics Director Jessy Grizzle, an electrical and computer engineering professor, said while exoskeletons are becoming more sophisticated, they are still limited, making the students’ efforts at ACE that much more impressive.

“They’re pretty rare right now,” Grizzle said. “There are some in the medical field helping people with strokes and the army is probably the most advanced in the force augmentation. To have student teams demonstrate this two weeks ago is kind of amazing. It’s not a simple technology, and the faculty there were super proud of what we were seeing our students doing.”

Building the exoskeletons was no easy feat. Winship said the team had a four-step approach: diving into current research, designing, assembling and testing. This process is made more complicated because, according to Rabideau, there’s a lot less research on exoskeletons than cars or rockets. This, he said, is part of why he created the team.

“Realizing there’s so much information for other types of things you can work on, like rockets and cars, but exoskeletons you can’t really find much information on. There’s so few research papers, and some companies are working on it but they’re not going to tell you how their thing works because they’re trying to make money,” Rabideau said. “So the idea was to make a team that was able to work on these projects, be able to show online and see what’s going on.”

The goal of STARX, Rabideau said, is not only to produce exoskeletons but to contribute to the available knowledge and research of exoskeletons. At the ACE competition, the teams from the different schools were able to pool their resources. Engineering senior Jessica Mosier was the lead organizer of the competition and said when the day finally arrived, it was hectic and wonderful.

“It was a crazy experience, running around trying to make sure everything was going smoothly,” Mosier said. “But it was really just so different, fun and unique. It was really exciting to see all these schools are, there were so many people there and everyone was into what we were doing and excited to show off what we have.”

Colorado School of Mines ended up winning the competition, beating STARX by less than a tenth of a point. Though ACE was a competition, Winship said the collaborative aspect was the real highlight.

“Everyone was there, everyone was talking about exoskeletons and the research, their own designs, and comparing notes,” Winship said. “It was a huge learning experience and a really wonderful day.” 

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