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The Future is Now

An Airman picks up a cardboard box while wearing a suit strapped to his hips, legs and feet.

Senior Airman Zachary Ford, an AC-130W Stinger II crew chief assigned to the 16th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, demonstrates proper lifting techniques aided by an exoskeleton suit at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. on Aug. 10, 2021. The leg module of the exoskeleton aides the user by not allowing them to overextend and injure themselves. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Cyburt)

An Airman looks on as another Airman straps a suite to his shoulder and arms.

Senior Airman Zachary Ford, an AC-130W Stinger II crew chief assigned to the 16th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Jared Kummerer, 27 SOAMXS Innovation Cell, adjust the range of motion on a shoulder exoskeleton suit at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. on Aug. 10, 2021. Recent industrial studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor have shown that utilization of exoskeletons can increase a person’s stamina by 10-20% during an eight-hour shift and may improve their overall work performance and job satisfaction. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Cyburt)

An Airman strikes a bent-over pose with a suit attached to his chest, lower back, hips and thighs.

Senior Airman Zachary Ford, an AC-130W Stinger II crew chief assigned to the 16th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, demonstrates the capabilities of a back exoskeleton suit at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. on Aug. 10, 2021. The back module of the exoskeleton allows for easier lifting of objects by alleviating stress and pressure points on the lower back and more muscle groups. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Cyburt)

Airman stands with suit strapped around shoulders and arms.

Senior Airman Zachary Ford, an AC-130W Stinger II crew chief assigned to the 16th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, makes sure his equipment is secure while testing a shoulder exoskeleton suit at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. on Aug. 10, 2021. The shoulder module of the exoskeleton locks into place, allowing Airmen to lift objects above their heads with less fatigue. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Cyburt)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 90% of fatigue-related accidents in an industrial environment result in bodily injuries, and the military’s aviation maintenance community is no exception. However, Cannon is taking strides to limit those mishaps by introducing and testing new technology aimed to assist the maintenance Airmen.

The 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Innovation Cell has begun testing exoskeletons as a potential countermeasure to combat fatigue among the maintainers.

In January 2021, the 27 SOAMXS Innovation Cell was created to further Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown’s mission of “Accelerate Change or Lose.” One of the changes that needed to be accelerated was the approach to health and wellness of 27 SOAMXS Airmen.

“Leadership had major concerns with fatigue, and that’s when the Innovation Cell took on the project,” said Tech. Sgt. Jared Kummerer, exoskeleton project lead for the 27 SOAMXS. “It was a common issue our maintainers were facing. They would get out there on the job, utilizing two-man lifts, and they were holding these physical positions for a long period of time.”

Physical exertion is a common experience for aircraft maintainers. Many spend their shifts exposed to extreme conditions and performing strenuous movements such as squatting and lifting objects above their heads for extended lengths of time.

“We found the maintainers were readjusting more periodically than what should have been required,” said Kummerer. “They would take a break and come back full force, but at the end of the day it got to a point where their stamina was diminished completely.”

The question remained, what could be done to give the Airmen the assistance required to reduce the strain on their bodies? For Kummerer, the answer was simple: exoskeletons.

“We contacted another agency out of Tinker Air Force Base, who are utilizing the same suits we’re currently testing,” said Kummerer. “They have actually seen a 20-25% increase in stamina with their maintainers.”
Recent industrial studies in the utilization of exoskeletons have shown that increasing a person’s stamina by 10-20% during an eight-hour shift improved their overall work performance and job satisfaction. By boosting those two factors, a third improved asset emerged.

“The benefit aside from overall health, is productivity,” said Kummerer. “What used to take our guys four hours, now takes three hours due to better fatigue management.”

The three exoskeletons currently being tested each incorporate different motions and movements, but all three aid the user with mechanical gas shock assistance. The shoulder module assists Airmen in holding objects above their heads. The leg module assists in squatting positions, allowing users to hold the squat for extended periods of time, and then assisting them to return to a standing position. The back module allows for easier lifting of objects by alleviating stress and pressure points on the lower back and core muscle groups. All three allow for both ‘resistance’ (stopping the body from incorrect movements or over-extending) and ‘assistance’ (aiding the body to return to its natural position).

The testing phase for the exoskeletons is currently underway; the Innovation Cell hopes to see exoskeletons fully utilized within a year.

“A year would give us enough technical data that we could write a user-manual on it,” Kummerer said. “The fitting phase is the longest process; it is a multi-user device…we need to be able to come up with a program to implement it safely and efficiently and make it sustainable for the future.”

While the cost of procuring these exoskeletons is high, workplace injuries can lead to many costly problems, such as: personal injury, loss in production, retraining new personnel, reintegration back into the workplace, and workstation modification.

“The suit is not meant to mitigate the safety precautions; it’s meant to aid the technician in a safe manner of completing their task,” said Kummerer. “And the nominal sticker price for the entire exoskeleton is only a drop in the bucket when compared to lifelong effects from work related injuries. We’re looking at a projected savings of $15.1 billion, due to the reduction of overexertion.”

The use of exoskeletons may sound like a futuristic concept, but Kummerer is taking it in stride.

“[Exoskeletons are] viewed as superficial and science fiction, but we’re making a reality out of it,” Kummerer said with a smile. “We’re accelerating change, and we’re gaining, not losing. “