SCDF to trial soft 'exosuit' for emergency medical officers and rescue teams

SCDF DART team specialists WO 1 Bahiyudin bin Abas (left) and SGT 3 Zulhelmi Bin Sa’adon with their soft exosuits. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Almost every workday sees Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) paramedic Benjamin Yeo, 26, carrying out strenuous tasks such as lifting casualties onto stretchers and carrying heavy medical equipment like oxygen tanks.

Back pain comes with the job, but that could change with the use of a new "soft" exoskeleton.

Unveiled on Friday (Oct 29), the "exosuit" is a lightweight device strapped over the chest with an adjustable shoulder harness and belt around the hips, to help alleviate strain on the lower back.

Chest pads support the wearer when leaning forward, reducing the strain on the spine. "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.

"The suit has no electronics, just a spring-loaded system," said Mr Yeo.

"The spring helps to rebound my weight, so instead of using my full effort, it helps me to come back up easier."

This alleviates muscle fatigue on busy days, he added.

The exosuit will soon be trialled in the daily operations of SCDF's Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Dart), whose jobs demand physical strength and endurance.

EMS officers such as paramedics and emergency medical technicians have to carry oxygen tanks and other heavy medical equipment.

Dart teams often have to hold heavy hydraulic rescue equipment for long periods of time when extricating casualties from collapsed structures or confined spaces.

Dart specialist Sergeant 3 Zulhelmi Sa'adon wearing the exosuit and carries a power saw in a demonstration. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) designed trials to assess the efficacy of the suits for the SCDF.

At the launch at Bukit Batok Fire Station on Friday, HTX senior scientist Leong Hin Fong said controlled environment trials found that Dart specialists' endurance was prolonged by 39 per cent.

Unlike a bulkier robotic exoskeleton developed in 2016, the compact exosuit weighs less than 3kg and does not hinder movement.

In a demonstration of the exosuit's operational advantage at the Bukit Batok Fire Station on Friday, a Dart officer lifted a 20kg bag and walked from the back of the truck to the front with ease.

In a demonstration of the exosuit's operational advantage, a Dart officer lifted a 20kg bag and walked from the back of the truck to the front with ease. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
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The SCDF first explored exoskeleton technology in 2014, launching a hard suit in 2016 that aimed to enhance a responder's ability to execute front-line functions such as firefighting, rescue and casualty evacuation.

However, trials conducted from 2018 to 2019 revealed that the hard suit was too bulky and difficult to wear.

"Seeing the potential in using soft exoskeleton to ergonomically augment Home Team front-liners to perform their roles, we made it our mission to design a rigorous trial to assess the suitability of using soft exoskeleton for emergency operations," said Mr Ying Meng Fai, director of HTX's Human Factors and Simulation Centre of Expertise.

Eight exosuits have been developed for a year-long trial that will begin in January.

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