Tech for the Developing World: Inflatable Incubators

inflatable_incubator_0One of the greatest challenges to combating problems in the developing world – like disease and infant mortality – is the fact that the necessary infrastructure and equipment isn’t always available. This is especially the case in war-torn Syria, where premature babies are dying due to a lack of incubating equipment. Hence why James Roberts came up with his Inflatable Incubator, a cheap and easy-to-transport neonatal device.

Designed to look like an accordion-like instrument known as a concertina, each end of the inflatable shell case contains electronics, including a ceramic heater, some fans, a humidifier, and an Arduino computer. The collapsible middle section extends out and can be inflated into a bed. As Roberts explained:

This allows the incubator to fit into a very compact space for storage or transportation, but still offer the same volume of a first world incubator when inflated for the child’s comfort.

inflatable_incubatorThe idea came to him after Roberts saw a video about child death in Syrian refugee camps and he decided to develop the idea as part of a final year project at a British university. So far, there are two prototypes: a purely functional clear plastic box that demonstrates the technology, and an “aesthetic” version that shows off what the product will eventually look like. Roberts is now trying to interest charities in adopting the project.

There are already cheap baby-warming products aimed at the developing world, such as the Embrace – a clever sleeping bag that can maintain a 37° C (98° F)temperature for up to four hours. Roberts’s idea has a few extra features, like a humidity sensor, a temperature probe, and LED lights for nighttime use. The design was also entered in this year’s Dyson Awards, an international student design award program that rewards problem-solving ideas.

inflatable_incubator_1To Roberts, his invention is not just about offering a solution to a problem that all-too-common in certain regions of the world. It’s also about addressing a technology gap that has existed for far too long. As he explained it:

Neonatal intensive care units have been around since 1922. So why, almost 100 years later is this still a huge problem in some parts of the world? I believe my design helps solve this problem and could allow for certain children to gain a positive start in life, greatly decreasing the numbers of premature child deaths throughout refugee camps.

As always, its a question of access. And making technologies more accessible in the developing world is one of the greatest challenges facing modern researchers and developers.


The Future is Here: Shipbuilder Robotic Exosuit

SK_exoskeletonWith numerous prototypes in development, it seems like just a matter of time before the industrial robotic exoskeleton becomes an everyday reality. Between NASA, the US armed forces, Panasonic, and now Daewoo, the range of powered robot suits seems virtually limitless. And Daewoo, the South-Korean manufacturing giant, now appears to be a step ahead of the competition, having already tested its prototype suits last year.

The test took place at a sprawling shipyard in Okpo-dong in South Korea, where workers dressed in wearable robotics were hefting large hunks of metal, pipes and other objects. It was all part of a test by Daewoo’s Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering facility, where workers strapped into 28kg (62 pound) aluminum alloy, steel and carbon fiber suits called the RoboShipbuilder that supported their own weight plus an additional 30kg (66 pounds).

Daewoo-exoskeletonAnyone between 160 and 185cm tall (5 feet 2 inches and 6 feet) fits the suit, and it has three hours of battery life. Straps across the legs, feet and chest secure the wearer, and the RoboShipbuilder runs on hydraulic joints and electric motors, with the power source tucked inside a backpack. And, because the suit bears most of the weight of the heavy objects, wearers have much finer control over what they are handling.

Gilwhoan Chu, the lead engineer for the firm’s research and development arm, says the pilot showed that the exoskeleton does help workers perform their tasks. Worker feedback was mostly positive, but their were comments that the suit could be faster and be bale to carry more weight. Chu and his team are working towards this, hoping to increase the robot’s lift capacity to 100 kilograms (220 pounds).

activelink-power-loader-concept-1The prototypes still have several important kinks to be worked out as well. In tests, workers had a hard time negotiating sloping or slippery surfaces. And the prototypes cannot yet cope with twisting motions, so workers making turns while carrying heavy objects could tire out easily. But South Korea’s vast shipbuilding market is committed to merging human oversight with automation, and Daewoo is hardly alone in working towards this goal.

Earlier this year, the Panasonic subsidiary Activelink is developing an exosuit known as the Powered Loader – a deliberate homage to the Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader from Aliens fame. According to Activelink, the Power Loader will enable a human to lift up to 100 kilos (220 pounds) and run at speeds up to 8 kilometers (5 miles) per hour, and will be powered by lithium ion battery packs that will provide several hours worth of power.

exoskeleton-titan-armThe exoskeleton will initially be deployed in construction work, nuclear power plants, and emergency situations, but the company has big plans for the future. Activelink would like to develop an exosuit that can fit under a spacesuit or diving gear for underwater and space exploration purposes. The Power Loader appears to be a full-body version of creations like the battery-powered robotic Titan Arm, which won the 2013 James Dyson Award.

The Titan Arm augments arm strength by 18 kg (40 pounds), helping rehabilitate people with back injuries and assisting those lifting objects as part of their daily work. The price for Panasonic’s strength suit is currently projected to be 500,000 yen (around $4,940), and Panasonic says it wants to bring the suits to market by next year. It’s an exciting time to be alive, where a once-feverish dream of science fiction fanatics is fast becoming reality!

And who knows? By the 2020’s, we might even be seeing something along the lines of this in active service:

"Get away from her you bitch!"
“Get away from her you bitch!”

And be sure to watch this video of the Power Loader exoskeleton being tested:

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