Giving SCDF's new 'exosuit' a test run

The Straits Times' Siti Sarah donning the SCDF's new "exosuit". ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - An exoskeleton suit that reduces the impact of strenuous and repetitive tasks? I jumped at the chance to don this "bionic" suit on Friday (Oct 29), when it was unveiled by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

The "exosuit" is being assessed for use by the SCDF in trials designed by the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX).

The suit is nothing like the robotic exoskeleton more suited to sci-fi movies - think mechanical limbs, pneumatic pistons - that firefighters trialled a few years back.

This new exosuit comprises supportive chest pads to reduce the strain on the wearer's spine when leaning forward, such as when paramedics lift patients on a stretcher or perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for prolonged periods.

"Smart joints" store energy as a wearer bends forward, releasing this energy to provide a slight push against the thighs when the wearer shifts upright. This assistive force can be switched on and off as required.

This lightweight exosuit weighed no more than 3kg, and is designed to be donned in 40 seconds.

Except... Mayday. Its design had been optimised for the average height of SCDF officers, which is 1.6m. Standing at 1.56m, nothing fits on me where it is supposed to.

Two HTX staff members, then two SCDF officers came to my rescue as I struggled to adjust the exosuit, turning the whole thing into a four-man operation.

Nothing could be done about the big gap between my body and the chest pads. The belt, where smart joints are attached, also sat way too low on my hips.

I was determined to go on, but was told I might not experience the full effect of the exosuit.

Instead of testing the suit's prowess while performing CPR on a dummy as originally planned, I was told to do "simple tasks" such as squatting and reaching for my toes.

The sensations were strange - anti-gravitational, in a way.

As I lowered my body, it felt like there were springs in my feet that were simultaneously pushing me upwards.

However, I felt very little pressure on my spine, despite bending down low. Doing a quick series of squats did not leave me with burning thighs or an aching back.

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Emergency front-liners using this suit would feel less strain and fatigue when carrying heavy equipment.

A switch also lets the wearer turn off the assistive force mechanism if, say, then need to run up the stairs.

While I was in the exosuit, I certainly felt like I could accomplish much more with it, such as moving things repetitively from one point to another.

The exosuit will be trialled in the daily operations of SCDF's Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Dart) in January 2022.

If it passes muster, it will help SCDF officers achieve even greater heroic deeds in the course of their work. Especially if they are above 1.6m.

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