Navy testing exoskeletons for shipyard workers

The Navy hopes exoskeletons can help reduce overexertion and repetitive-motion injuries in shipyard workers.

Navy shipyard workers may someday share something in common with Special Operations forces: on-the-job exoskeletons.

The U.S. Navy is testing two Fortis exoskeletons (PDF graphic) through a contract between Lockheed Martin and the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences consortium, according to a Lockheed statement.

The Fortis rig won’t have anywhere near the enhancements of the Special Operations Command’s TALOS, dubbed the “Iron Man” suit.

But one of the main ideas behind both exoskeletons is reducing injuries. Ergonomic accidents, such overexertion and repetitive motion injuries are by far the most common shipyard accidents, according to Naval Sea System Command data.

Fortis includes a metal “arm” that allows a shipyard work to use grinders, riveters and other tools weighing up to 36 pounds as though it were weightless, according to Lockheed Martin.

“Those tools take a toll on operators due to the tools’ weight and the tight areas where they are sometimes used,” Adam Miller, director of new initiatives for fire control and missiles, said in a company statement.

The exoskeleton clips on around the legs and includes shoulder strap harnesses. It’s unpowered and weighs 30 pounds, according to a Defensetech.org report.

As for the next big question — how much? — that hasn’t been released. Given the current pressure on defense budgets, that could go a long way toward determining whether future shipyards look like Transformer hives, or whether exoskeletons become more like specialty items reserved for the toughest jobs.

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