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The Physically-Enhanced Farmer: Developing Exoskeletons for Use in Agriculture

HARVEST researchers from Virginia Tech - Leonessa, Niewolny and Srinivasan, along with Dr. Alan Asbeck, are currently leading an NSF-funded, partnership for innovation project titled “Affordable Flexible Robotics to Aid Farmers with Mobility Limitations” that aims to develop novel assistive technology for farmers.


In industries involving tough physical work, the traditional approach to reduce the harmful effects of manual labor has been to rotate jobs, or to modify job requirements such that awkward postures and heavy lifting are minimized. However, this is very hard to do in agriculture, where it is often a single farmer who does all the work, and where the type of physical activity is often dictated by the natural environment. Farming is also one of the most hazardous industries in the US.


Exoskeletons are a novel and exciting technology that can enhance human physical capabilities by providing mechanical assistance to the limbs. These devices offer a new perspective in terms of reducing physical work demands - enhancing the human rather than modifying the job. Because of their potential versatility, exoskeletons can be especially effective in agriculture. An exoskeleton can enable a farmer to do dynamic and strenuous activities such as working with livestock or hopping on and off a tractor multiple times in a day. Additionally, exoskeletons can empower older farmers by reducing the physical impact of their work.


HARVEST researchers at Virginia Tech are aiming to develop an exoskeleton that is affordable, and tailored towards the specific needs of farmers.


In the first phase of the project, graduate students from Virginia Tech conducted a survey with agricultural researchers service providers, to understand their expert perspectives on applying exoskeletons in agriculture. The survey was distributed to agricultural experts at the 2018 AgrAbility National Training Workshop (http://www.agrability.org/agrability-national-training-workshop/2018-agrability-national-training-workshop-archives/) and via email listservs to the AgrAbility professional community. The questions focused on two main themes -

1) What farming tasks can exoskeletons actually be used for? and

2) What do farmers really care about, and what are their concerns regarding adopting new technology?


The insights from this survey led to a journal publication titled “The Potential for Exoskeletons to Improve Health and Safety in Agriculture—Perspectives from Service Providers”. The following figures describe the interesting insights that emerged out of this study -

Farming activities where exoskeletons could prove useful [1]

What do farmers care the most about? [1]

For the second phase of the Affordable Flexible Robotics project, the researchers developed an interview questionnaire based on the survey responses from the previous phase. The objective was to talk to actual farmers, rather than service providers.


Farmers were recruited from the AgrAbility Virginia and the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition list-servs. The research team worked closely with Kirk Ballin, who is the program coordinator for Easterseals Virginia (https://www.easterseals.com/) for recruitment.


For the interviews, three dates and sites that covered different regions of the state were chosen:

In addition to these three dates and sites for interviews, researchers also conducted interviews in Pulaski and Surry Counties.


Researchers are currently analyzing these data to cultivate a deep understanding about what farmers really need. They expect to use this understanding to guide the exoskeleton-design process. The future stages of the project will involve much closer contact with farmers. Farmers, engineers and physical therapists will engage in a collaborative process to design and test the exoskeleton.

More Information:

To see the project abstract, visit: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1745477


For more information about Asbeck's Assistive Robotics lab at Virginia Tech, please visit: https://autonomyandrobotics.centers.vt.edu/groups/arlab.html 


To see the work happening at Leonessa's Terrestrial Robotics lab at Virginia Tech, please visit: http://www.me.vt.edu/research/laboratories/trec/


To read more about the Human Factors and Ergonomics work, please visit: www.ise.vt.edu/divya


To learn more about Agrability VA, please visit: https://www.agrability.ext.vt.edu/


REFERENCES:
 [1] Upasani, S., Franco, R., Niewolny, K., & Srinivasan, D. (2019). The Potential for Exoskeletons to Improve Health and Safety in Agriculture—Perspectives from Service Providers. IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, 1-8.