WASHINGTON — The Air Force this month demonstrated an exoskeleton it hopes will allow aerial porters to load cargo onto aircraft with fewer injuries and less fatigue.
The Forge System exoskeleton is designed to augment the leg strength of aerial porters, who are in charge of managing and loading passengers and cargo on and off mobility aircraft, with pneumatically-powered leg braces and a backpack.
They might not be as elaborate as the exosuit Sigourney Weaver used in the classic movie “Aliens,” but the overall concept — using tech to give human muscles and bones a boost during strenuous labor — is not far off.
Aerial porters’ cargo-loading duties are physically demanding, and they often suffer injuries to their muscles and bones from overuse.
The cargo that aerial porters push and pull onto planes can range from pallets of equipment, gear and food weighing thousands of pounds to drones to even more massive tanks or High Mobility Artillery Rocket System trucks. A 2019 Transportation Department study found disability benefits for aerial porters cost the government $31 million each year.
Last year, the Air Force said that 2019 study prompted it to start looking at exoskeleton technology that could cut down on porters’ injuries. A previous exoskeleton developed by Arizona State University, Air Mobility Command and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, dubbed the Aerial Port Exoskeleton, was tested at Travis Air Force Base in California last year.
The Army has also developed various models of exoskeletons to lessen soldiers’ injuries from lifting ammunition or moving other heavy loads. And U.S. Special Operations Command has experimented with an Iron Man-like armored tactical exoskeleton for special operators, though making that concept a reality has proven challenging.
The Forge System, the latest version of the exoskeleton, was developed by California-based Roam Robotics as part of a Direct to Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant, with the help of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Center for Rapid Innovation.
AFRL and a team from Roam on Oct. 6 demonstrated the Forge System at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the service said in a release.
As part of this demonstration, two aerial porters from the 87th Aerial Port Squadron at Wright-Patterson moved a 3,500-pound pallet onto a C-17 Globemaster with the help of the exoskeleton. Typically, that kind of a load would require four or five porters, the Air Force said.
One of those porters, Chief Master Sgt. Sean Storms, said he felt much less pressure on his knees while moving the pallet as the exoskeleton’s actuators gave him a boost.
John Florio, the deputy director for AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, said the exoskeleton could allow teams of porters to load heavier objects onto aircraft more quickly, saving time and money.
“But the biggest game changer for the Air and Space forces is less injuries to personnel, which can lead to longer careers,” Florio said. “Chronic injuries are rampant all over this particular field and in other related fields too.”
Brig. Gen. John Andrus, commander of the 711th Human Performance Wing, said medical personnel conducting aeromedical evacuations who have to lift sick or injured troops on litters are another example of airmen who could benefit from such an exoskeleton.
Andrus and other observers at the demonstration tried on the exoskeleton and used it to push weighted sleds, climb stairs while carrying weights and take on other activities meant to simulate the work aerial porters do.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.