—— The world’s first robot exoskeleton with TÜV SÜD certification could pave the way to the future of technical occupational safety—also with support from artificial intelligence.


Companies in almost all European countries are suffering from a shortage of skilled workers. One reason for the increasing difficulties in finding qualified personnel is demographic change: baby boomers are about to retire. Exoskeletons—also known as wearable robotics—could present a modern solution for this modern problem. A study by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin) shows that more than 25 percent of all sick days taken in Germany are due to musculoskeletal conditions. The main cause: working in a non-ergonomic manner. Do wearable robotics have the potential to ensure gentler working conditions for workers until they retire?

Exoskeletons are structures worn outside the body that help stabilize and support the torso, back or even individual extremities. The first exoskeleton appeared as a patent back in 1890. Nicholas Yagn, in the service of the Russian czar, created an apparatus for walking faster. Since then, increasingly efficient systems have been designed—for military, medical and commercial applications.

Today around a hundred smaller and larger companies around the world are developing all types of wearable robotic applications. There are exoskeletons for brain surgeons, who must work very precisely with steady hands over longer periods of time, or arm supports for mechanics, who must perform strenuous tasks above their heads. With its physically demanding and repetitive tasks on the assembly line, the automotive industry in particular is already one of the biggest consumers of this technology.

Along with purely mechanical and actively motorized units, artificial intelligence is currently emerging as a new trend in wearable robotics. Cameras keep watch on the surrounding environment and independently trigger the necessary movements such as walking, standing or sitting. Furthermore, the system learns to anticipate movement sequences and various work situations and to provide support in advance.

Products with such a dramatic increase in complexity have high quality requirements. Last year, TÜV SÜD issued its first certification mark for an electric exoskeleton. The manufacturer German Bionic received the “TÜV SÜD Safety Tested” certificate for its Cray X model. The certificate provides confirmation that the AI-based active exoskeleton complies with the fundamental technical safety requirements set out in the standard.

“The use of artificial intelligence in exoskeletons will definitely increase.”

[Translate to Deutsch:] In der Intralogistik kann ein Exoskelett Arbeitende unterstützen, in dem Rücken und Schultern stabilisiert werden. So können auch in Bodennähe regelmäßig schwerere Lasten gehoben und bewegt werden.
[Translate to Deutsch:] Mechaniker, die lange präzise mit den Armen über dem Kopf arbeiten müssen, wie zum Beispiel in einer Montagestraße der Automobilindustrie, können durch ein System mit Armstützen unterstützt werden.
[Translate to Deutsch:] Menschen mit Wirbelsäulenverletzungen können womöglich durch Wearable Robotics im Bereich der Beine unterstützt werden.
[Translate to Deutsch:] Neuere Systeme enthalten Sensoren und Kameras sowie lernfähige KI-Technologie. Damit können sie Arbeitssituationen und Bewegungsabläufe erlernen und erkennen, um noch intuitiver zu unterstützen.
WEARABLE ROBOTICS Healthier lifting, more precise screwing, learning to walk. Exoskeletons can be used in a variety of ways. The next generation of systems relies on networking and artificial intelligence. Photos: German Bionic (1,4) Hyundai (2,3)

In supporting the project from German Bionic, TÜV SÜD is following a clear line of action: certified occupational health is the key to a healthy and motivated team. With the internationally recognized ISO 45001 certification, employers can demonstrate their social responsibility. While occupational health and safety naturally covers areas such as chemicals and machinery, it also includes ergonomics, and thus preventative accident and injury avoidance.

In the specific case of German Bionic, the certification could also pave the way for additional AI-supported innovations in the future.

“The use of artificial intelligence in exoskeletons will definitely increase,” says Semhar Kinne, a research associate in the Machines and Facilities Department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics. She works with an interdisciplinary team that is investigating the applicability and usability of powered and passive exoskeletons.

Kinne also believes that the use of sensors could bring many promising advantages for the logistic centers of the future: “When I perform a certain movement with an exoskeleton, the next process can already be set into motion elsewhere.” An exoskeleton that collects (anonymized) data with every movement? This presents a great opportunity for optimizing processes and operations in production or logistics and making them more fluid and more efficient.