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Navy Uses Exoskeletons for Shipyard Maintenance

by Kris Osborn on August 22, 2014

Navy ExoskeletonThe Pentagon has acquired two high-tech exoskeletons designed to make it much easier for Navy shipyard workers to suspend and hold heavy hand-held tools such as riveters, grinders and sanders.

The so-called FORTIS exoskeleton is an unpowered, lightweight exoskeleton that increases an operator’s strength and endurance by transferring the weight of heavy loads from the user’s body directly to the ground, said Adam Miller, director of new initiatives at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

“We’ve been working on exoskeleton technology for over five years. There is interest in enhancing productivity and reducing the time a ship might need to be maintained,” he said.

Alongside FORTIS, the Navy is also examining and testing other domestic exoskeleton developers equipment, Suzanna Brugler, a Navy spokeswoman said.

U.S. Special Operation Command has also started researching the potential use of exoskeletons for the command’s planned Iron Man suit that would provide operators with super human strength on the battlefield. This is a separate program but an example of exoskeletons filtering into day-to-day military operations.

The units are manufactured at a Lockheed facility in Orlando, Fla. The purchase follows a two-year developmental assessment period with the exoskeletons at the Navy ship yards in Norfolk, Va., and Puget Sound, Wash.

“Ship maintenance often requires use of heavy tools, such as grinders, riveters or sandblasters,” said Miller.  “Those tools take a toll on operators due to the tools’ weight and the tight areas where they are sometimes used. By wearing the FORTIS exoskeleton, operators can hold the weight of those heavy tools for extended periods of time with reduced fatigue.”

With the FORTIS exoskeleton, a shipyard worker can hold a 30-pound piece of equipment in place for much longer periods of time without needing to rest, greatly increasing productivity, he added.

“Think about holding 30 pounds extended away from your body. Most people cannot do that for three minutes. With an exoskeleton, they just have their hands out in front of them so they can hold the tool for much longer periods of time. They might be able to work 15 to 20 minutes before needing a rest. You can hold your arms out a lot longer than you can hold out 30 pounds,” Miller said.

The FORTIS purchase follows a two-year developmental period where various exoskeleton technologies were assessed at Navy shipyards in Norfolk, Va. and Puget Sound, Wash., Navy officials said.

“The Navy plans to introduce exoskeleton technology in Naval shipyards, first with a focus on ship maintenance and repair work. As the Navy gains experience with exoskeleton technology, it plans on developing enhanced exoskeletons that will be employed in other challenging work environments beyond Naval shipyards,” said Michael Wade, engineer with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.

The 30-pound FORTIS, which is designed ergonomically to move with the body of the operator, is configured to shift the weight of the tool from the person to the exoskeleton itself.

“When a worker is riveting, he is not holding the riveter. He is operating it as if his hands are out in front of him holding nothing,” Miller explained. “Everything is mechanically connected down to the ground – the person has the mobility of a person who did not have the exoskeleton but his productivity is enhanced because he is not carrying or holding the load. Productivity is increased 2 to 20 times.”

FORTIS could be used for riveting, grinding, sanding or any instance wherein a worker needs to hold or suspend a heavy tool while working.

The exoskeletons were purchased by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Navy through the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a Michigan-based technology non-profit organization.  The exoskeletons being evaluated by the Navy will form the basis of a special test and evaluation period slated to run from September of this year through February of 2015, Miller and Navy officials added.

Wade said the exoskeleton reduces worker fatigue, improves worker productivity and mitigates strain-related injuries.

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