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Student tests exoskeletons in emergency situations

Common work-related injuries among emergency medical technicians (EMTs) include sprains and strains, most of which affect the hands and upper trunk, according to 2020 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Devices such as exoskeletons worn to enhance and support physical abilities can help reduce the rate of these injuries. However, integrating these devices into emergency response is fraught with challenges.

Oshin Tyagi, a doctoral student in the Wm Michael Barnes '64 Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University, is focusing her research on examining the role of exoskeletons in health care. With support from a $10,000 grant from the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health Pilot Projects Research Training Program, a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center, she is taking the final steps to begin conducting field research with EMTs in Houston.

Six months into her yearlong research grant, Tyagi said she is pleased with the progress of the project. The protocol for the study is in place, and along with pilot data collection, Tyagi said she recently received Institutional Review Board approval to conduct research with EMTs in Houston fire departments. 

The team will use a back exoskeleton designed by HeroWear. The device, which is worn like a backpack, has an actuator that can be turned on or off with a button near the wearer's collarbone to activate the device's mechanical systems. When turned on, the device applies pressure to a person's back when bending, helping to keep the back straight and relieve some of the activity from the back muscles.

Participants in Tyagi's study include paramedics from the Houston Fire Department. Study participants will perform tasks including CPR, pushing a stretcher in and out of an ambulance, and climbing stairs with heavy weight to simulate carrying patients and stretchers. They will also complete a series of standard box-lifting tasks used in research studies to investigate the biomechanical benefits of exoskeletons.

A man kneels next to a mannequin and practices CPR.
While exoskeletons can benefit technicians in some tasks, Tyagi found in her study that they can get in the way when performing CPR. | Image: Courtesy of Oshin Tyagi

"We will have the rescuers perform these basic tasks while wearing and not wearing an exoskeleton," Tyagi said. "We will compare the two conditions to determine how effective the use of exoskeletons was. We will also collect biomechanical data, muscle activity data, and subjective ratings of workload and ease of use to understand how well they adapt to exoskeleton use."

From the anecdotal data she collected, EMTs provided feedback that the exoskeleton was helpful when carrying stretchers, but got in their way when performing some critical medical tasks like CPR. If the goal is for EMTs to integrate exoskeletons into their daily work, Tyagi said it's more complicated than giving them an exoskeleton and telling them to use it.

"We want them to be trained on it, and to be trained on it, they would need to know when to turn the exoskeleton on and when to turn it off," Tyagi said. "I hope this will lead to valuable information, not only in science, but also for emergency responders and firefighters to get a clearer picture of how viable these devices are as ergonomic supports to reduce physical demands."

Tyagi thanked Chief Justin Reed and Houston Fire Department Cy-Fair paramedics for their important feedback.

Tyagi's team includes:

  • Tiash Mukherjee, doctoral student in mechanical engineering
  • Mytrey Abburu, biomedical engineering senior
  • Vishal Gottumukkala, senior of biomedical sciences
  • Tiago Gunter Xavier Do Vale, Mechanical Engineer
  • Eshan Manchanda, general education in the second year
  • Jimena Cortes Shivangi (former member)
  • Shivangi Dwivedi (former member)

An initial challenge for Tyagi was funding a team to help her with the major project. She went through the Aggie research program and said she found a wonderful interdisciplinary team of motivated undergraduate researchers ready to learn technical research skills.

"I've done a lot of studies, but beyond my dissertation project, I haven't designed any use-inspired research projects from scratch (i.e., secured external funding)," Tyagi said. "This was a fun experience. This was also the first time I led a large team, which was challenging at first. I'm grateful for the experience because I learned to lead and oversee research rather than do research."

The team hopes to submit its work for publication and plans to present at Texas A&M's Student Research Week in March and the Houston Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Symposium. Tyagi thanked her faculty advisor, Dr. Ranjana Mehta, associate professor in the department, for her guidance. Tyagi is part of Mehta's Neuroergonomics Lab, where she also received project coordination assistance from Lindsey Brenner, the lab's project manager. Tyagi said they helped her stay focused. 

"You have to have a clear idea of what you want to do, when and why," Tyagi said. "Sometimes you get distracted by a lot of different things you want to try while also managing your dissertation research. It's important to know the scope of your project and stick to it." 

Source: Student puts exoskeletons to the test in emergency situations | Texas A&M University Engineering (

Tom Illauer

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