UPenn students invent revolutionary device, win international award

Nick McGill, center, Elizabeth Beattie, and Nick Parrotta, show off the Titan Arm, an upper-body exoskeleton that increases human strength. Charles Mostoller/METRO
Nick McGill, center, Elizabeth Beattie, and Nick Parrotta, show off the Titan Arm, an upper-body exoskeleton that increases human strength. Charles Mostoller/METRO

It started as a brainchild with four University of Pennsylvania students and now, it could revolutionize the medical and engineering fields.

It’s the Titan Arm, a robotic exoskeleton device that helps strengthen and rebuild muscles, and it won the foursome a 2013 James Dyson Award, making them the first U.S. group to win the honor.

Their $45,000 prize will go a long way.

“We’re eager to push it forward and do more with it,” said team member Elizabeth Beattie.

She, along with Nick McGill, Nick Parrotta and Niko Vladimirov started working on the senior design project about a year ago.

The mechanical engineering students also used their robotics and design skills to develop the prototype, which Dyson officials say costs significantly less to make than similar exoskeletons.

It didn’t take the group too long to come up with a product they were satisfied with.

“It was pretty exciting,” McGill said. “It was just a feat of engineering accomplishment. You work really hard and oftentimes you don’t get such a satisfying end product. That’s what really generated our excitement.”

The device is battery-operated, with a remote control, and attaches to a person’s arm allowing them to rehab after suffering injuries. With the money, Beattie said the group has high hopes.

“Instead of the user directly controlling the arm,” she said, “[it would be] able to sense changes in muscle activity using skin patches to measure electro signals that would activate it.”

Vladimirov, one of the group members, is working on the West Coast but is still heavily involved in the project; McGill said Vladimirov has made contacts there to better develop and market their product.

They had learned of the Dyson Award, given to young engineers and designers through the James Dyson Foundation, by one of their professors. They were chosen as recipients from 650 groups in 18 countries worldwide.

The group also credited UPenn and Penn Engineering; they had access to the machine shop, 3D printers and laser cutters to develop the Titan Arm.

Nick McGill, center, Elizabeth Beattie, and Nick Parrotta, show off the Titan Arm, an upper-body exoskeleton that increases human strength.
Nick McGill, center, Elizabeth Beattie, and Nick Parrotta, show off the Titan Arm, an upper-body exoskeleton that increases human strength.

Who can use this device?

McGill said the Titan Arm is aimed at users in physical therapy as well as occupational lifting. “We could add something of value to warehouse workers — they tun into a lot of stress and strain in their jobs.”

The group has already been contacted by interested folk.

“A woman on the West Coast suffered from an injury and now she doesn’t have the strength to hold a cast iron pan,” Beattie said. “It’s driven our ideas for the Titan Arm and how we can hone in on the systems and really design them to meet the user’s need.”

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