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Superhero Solution on a Student Budget

Did you know powered exoskeletons can assist people in physical therapy, help warehouse workers avoid injuries, and aid search and rescue personnel? However, they are prohibitively expensive for widespread use. Winners of the Intel-supported Cornell Cup Challenge developed an easy-to-use, powered upper-body exoskeleton on a student budget.

A 1970s TV show featured a fictional man with bionic implants that gave him the strength of a bulldozer and the ability to run at 60 miles per hour. He was the Six Million Dollar Man, so named because that was the cost of his superhuman parts.

Fast forward 40 years to the University of Pennsylvania, where four undergrads created a real bionic arm—actually, a powered upper-body exoskeleton—at the much more reasonable cost of under $3,000. Elizabeth Beattie, Nick McGill, Nick Parrotta, and Niko Vladimirov were inspired to create their so-called “Titan Arm” after researching the potential that exoskeletons have for helping for people with debilitating injuries.Titan Arm straps onto a user’s arm and back and empowers him or her to lift over 40 pounds in a bicep curl. “When it is turned on, the added strength is immediately apparent,” says Parrotta. “It’s much like someone else is helping you out by lifting your forearm for you.”

The arm is designed for anyone who needs help lifting heavy objects—people with disabilities, warehouse workers, and search and rescue personnel—and for muscle rehabilitation in physical therapy settings. A backpack holds Titan’s power source and a motor that pulls or releases a steel cable that runs through carefully designed joints in the arm. Especially useful in physical therapy is hardware that wirelessly transmits force and joint angle data from the arm to an Intel® Atom™ processor-powered base station that tracks patient progress.

Other researchers have developed exoskeletons to boost people’s strength and mobility. But, Parrotta explains, Titan Arm was extremely inexpensive to produce by conventional exoskeleton standards because of a unique motor system the students designed. “We hope that a cheaper alternative would enable more people to benefit from this technology.”  

Team Titan won first place at the 2013 Cornell Cup USA, presented by Intel, an embedded design competition that challenges students to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems. Parotta says, “Winning the Cornell Cup was incredible, as it brought attention to our project and exoskeletons as a whole.”

Elizabeth Beattie, Nick McGill, Nick Parrotta, and Niko Vladimirov

Creating entrepreneurial culture

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Two members of Titan Arm development team with their product.

Cornell Cup USA

Cornell Cup USA, presented by Intel, is a college-level embedded design competition created to empower students.

Katherine Bomkamp

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