It’s 2019 – where’s my supersuit?

I loved the “Thundercats” cartoon as a child, watching cat-like humanoids fighting the forces of evil. Whenever their leader was in trouble, he’d unleash the Sword of Omens to gain “sight beyond sight,” the ability to see events happening at faraway places, or bellow “Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Hooo!” to instantaneously summon his allies to his location to join the fight. What kid didn’t want those superpowers?

I also wanted Green Lantern’s ring, Wonder Woman’s bracelets, Captain America’s shield and of course Batman’s batsuit. I never imagined then that 30 years later, as National Superhero Day approaches, I’d be designing components of my own supersuits.

I didn’t really notice this until a few months ago. On that day, my childhood dreams were at once destroyed and fulfilled. Standing in a line, I noticed that everyone was focused on their smartphones’ screens. Suddenly it hit me: I already had Sword of Omens superpowers. With my smartphone, I can see video of faraway events and text my friends to meet up. Billions of people now have what used to be considered superpowers.

But what about the physical superpowers? I wanted those, too – like superhuman endurance or strength. Those may not be too far behind: I’m working on them in Vanderbilt’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology. Humanity has begun to enter the age of wearable exoskeletons and exosuits that offer support and strength to people’s bodies.

A spring-powered back-support exosuit. Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University

Exoskeletons under development

Over the past five years, wearable exoskeletons that assist and aid movement have begun to shift out of research labs and into public use. They’re still early versions, and the science is still emerging, but they include the first of several FDA-approved exoskeletons to assist individuals with spinal cord injury or after stroke, as well as exoskeletons to help keep workers safe and reduce the fatigue of physically demanding jobs.

Toyota even requires workers to wear exoskeletons as mandatory personal protective equipment when performing certain overhead work tasks, where fatigue and muscle stress could lead to injury.

However, most people who could potentially benefit don’t yet have access to exoskeletons, because they’re generally too bulky, too expensive, interfere too much with other tasks or are not yet comfortable enough to wear. I’ve become fascinated by the prospect of regular people turning themselves into everyday superheroes.

[embedded content] No, really: Where is it?

Preventing injuries with supersuits

From my research lab, I can walk across the street and within two minutes be at the Veterans Affairs Hospital or the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The nurses and other medical professionals who perform strenuous lifting, leaning and carrying tasks to care for patients are likely to develop low back pain – or may already be experiencing it. A supersuit could help prevent this pain.

Low back pain is a complex problem with many potential sources, but one common source is due to stress from repetitive forces on the muscles and discs. Most adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime, and it’s a leading cause of physical disability. The prestigious medical journal The Lancet recently published a three-part series calling on everyone – from national and international policymakers to funding agencies to researchers, engineers and clinicians – to help improve the effectiveness of care and develop innovative new solutions to combat this global epidemic.

Over the last three years, the research team I lead has been developing a clothing-like exoskeleton, which might be more aptly described as mechanized clothing, a spring-powered exosuit or even just a supersuit. It consists of a vest and shorts made of common clothing materials, plus assistive fabric elastic bands and a switch that lets the wearer turn the suit’s assistance on or off.