Penn Engineering team wins international invention award

As part of their senior design project in May, a team of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics undergrads—Elizabeth Beattie, Nick McGill, Nick Parrotta, and Niko Vladimirov—made Titan Arm, a device that looks like it was ripped from a science fiction movie and augments a user's strength by up to 40 pounds.

Their design has now netted them the 2013 James Dyson Award, which comes with a £30,000 (around $48,000) prize for the team and an additional £10,000 (around $16,000) for their department.

Titan Arm is the first product from the United States to win the award.

The international design competition is run by the James Dyson Foundation, the charitable trust of the British inventor known for his innovative vacuum cleaners. The foundation funds and encourages engineering education, and its award seeks entries from engineering students who are developing products that address some social ill.  

Team Titan envisions that its bionic arm could be used by physical therapy patients who need help while regaining their strength and mobility, as well as workers who are at risk for repetitive stress injuries. Constructed for less than $2,000, it is a promising alternative to existing exoskeleton systems that are much more expensive. 

Titan Arm’s power comes from a battery-powered motor mounted on a SCUBA backplate that the user wears with straps repurposed from a hiking backpack. After strapping his or her right arm into a support, a cable system transfers the motor’s motion to the support’s elbow joint.

The current version of the device features a simple joystick that the user operates with his or her left hand to control the speed and direction of the motor. The joystick also has a switch that activates a brake on the cable, enabling the user to lock the arm into position while carrying a load.

The entire contraption weighs less than 20 pounds or, the team jokes, less than a typical engineering student’s bookbag. 

“The level of sophistication in both the design and production of their product is truly remarkable,” says Jonathan Fiene, Mechanical Engineering’s director of laboratory programs and the team’s adviser. “It never ceases to amaze me what our students can do.”

The team plans to keep working on their product, eventually replacing the joystick with electromyography sensors to enable adding a second arm. Users would then control the arms directly via muscle impulses sensed through the skin.

Titan Arm