Blueprint: A Battery-Powered Robot Arm

The Titan Arm is a motorized limb that can lift 40 pounds.

The Titan Arm

Trevor Johnston

Today, the team behind the Titan Arm won the 2013 James Dyson Award for their invention. "Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling," James Dyson said of the project.--Ed.

Our Titan Arm exoskeleton uses a motorized elbow joint to increase someone’s weight-lifting capacity by 40 pounds. When people see it, they always jump to thinking about Iron Man, but the idea is to give injured patients strength and to assist with their physical therapy.

The 18-pound suit goes on like a backpack. A repurposed scuba backplate holds the electronics and motor. Your arm straps into aluminum and 3-D–printed plastic pieces that run from your shoulder to wrist. The design distributes the lifted weight to your back and promotes good form.

We’re looking into using brainwaves or muscle sensors to control the suit, but for now, Titan has a wired joystick that a nurse or patient could operate. A battery-powered motor uses a cable transmission to pull and push the elbow joint and can add resistance to help you build up your own muscles. You can also engage a ratchet brake, allowing you to hold something at a specific angle. Joint sensors record the range of motion and send it to a microcomputer on your back, which can relay it via Wi-Fi so that a doctor could remotely oversee the progress of physical therapy.

Unlike most exoskeletons currently on the market, our prototype is designed specifically for the upper body, and at $1,500, it costs less than many other suits. The name? We went with Titan after the superpowerful Greek deities.

Nick McGill is an engineering graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He developed the suit with classmates Elizabeth Beattie, Nick Parrotta, and Nikolay Vladimirov.