DOE evaluates wearable robotic devices to aid cleanup workforce

November 4, 2022, 7:09AMRadwaste Solutions
Nicholas Spivey, left, an SRNL mechanical engineer, and Kurt Gerdes, director of EM’s Office of Technology Development, use virtual reality simulation of an EM worksite during meetings held at the IHMC in Pensacola, Fla. (Photo: DOE)

For the first time since forming in 2020, more than 40 members of a Department of Energy team met in person to evaluate technologies, including exoskeletons and wearable robotic devices, that could be adapted to the cleanup mission of department’s Office of Environmental Management (EM), helping improve the safety and well-being of its workers.

The team from the DOE’s technology development and evaluation program, which works with sites across the EM complex to identify repetitive, physically demanding tasks that may be made easier using wearable devices, gathered at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola. The IHMC is among the organizations EM has funded to develop and test the wearable devices for EM’s workforce.

“Nothing we do is more important than protecting the health and safety of our workforce,” said Kurt Gerdes, director of the EM Office of Technology Development. “This program has the potential to create new approaches to addressing that key challenge.”

Potential applications: The IHMC meetings included demonstrations of institute’s prototype exoskeleton for tank farm workers across the EM complex and a virtual reality simulation of an EM worksite.

Team members shared updates on their current research and development, including studies of the physical impact of wearable devices in EM tasks, pilot testing at multiple cleanup sites, and development of devices tailored to the unique needs of EM workers, including compatibility with personal protective equipment.

According to EM, the initial results of those studies are encouraging, and the department team is exploring several potential applications of the technology across the EM complex in the short term. To meet the broader needs of the cleanup complex, additional technology evaluation will continue.

Team players: Representatives from all the funded organizations that work on the technology development and evaluation program attended the IHMC meetings. They included Sandia National Laboratories, which leads the effort; EM’s Savannah River National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Georgia Institute of Technology; Florida International University; and IHMC. Gerdes and project manager Jean P. Pabón with the EM Office of Technology Development, and employees from the Hanford Site also attended the meetings.

EM said that the team intends to continue holding in-person meetings twice per year at locations of team members or EM sites as efforts move forward to provide workers with the best possible tools to be safe as they work to complete EM’s cleanup mission.

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