Student-created suspension system for heavy lifting, carrying tasks takes a load off
Who they are
For Jeff Ackerman it started with a research project centered on a six-legged robot that moved like a cockroach. Ackerman and his adviser, mechanical engineering Professor Justin Seipel, realized that the dynamic load on the robot from its heavy batteries could be reduced by carrying its batteries with a spring. The spring smoothed out the robot’s gait, similar to the way a car’s suspension system smooths out the ride.
Then, Ackerman began seeing handles everywhere — young moms struggling with loaded baby carriers, workers hauling heavy tool boxes, folks trudging through airports, especially up and down stairs, with burdensome luggage. What he did next may one day make you thankful when you have to run to catch a flight.
What they're doing
Ackerman developed a handle with its own built-in, compact suspension system, a technology he and his business partners Ankur Ashtekar, Lokesh Awasthy and Nick Weinzapfel have named Rhotek. Dynamic forces generated by hauling a load can be two to three times the weight of the load itself, so if you’re carrying something weighing 40 pounds it can feel like 80 or 120 every time you take a step.
Initial estimates suggest that a handle with Rhotek could reduce those forces by up to 80 percent, so the load feels lighter and, more importantly, subjects your muscles and joints to less wear and tear. The difference is especially noticeable when running with a load or traversing stairs. With musculoskeletal injuries affecting heavily loaded U.S. military personnel at a price of more than $550 million annually, the military, which also is interested in load-carrying robots, is a promising market for the Rhotek technology.
How they got there
Ackerman and his partners built a prototype from off-the-shelf materials in Purdue’s Mechanical Engineering Projects Machine Shop. Because Rhotek was developed using Purdue resources, he and Professor Seipel disclosed the project to the Purdue Research Foundation (PRF) and its Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC). This is a requirement for commercializing intellectual property developed at the University, but it also serves to protect Purdue’s and the developers’ rights to benefit from the innovations. OTC helped with filing a provisional patent and is working with the team to secure international rights. The office and PRF can assist Purdue staff and student innovators in filing copyrights and trademarks in addition to patents, as well as in setting up companies and marketing to potential commercial partners. The Rhotek team formed a company, REDD Science, to license the technology back from Purdue, a standard practice following disclosure of University-developed innovations, and refine it further both for military and consumer applications.
Ackerman won a fellowship in the Purdue Realization and Entrepreneurship Postdoctoral and Doctoral Program, which carries a year’s stipend allowing the fellows to pursue the commercialization of their research full time with educational guidance and entrepreneurial mentors. The Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship in Purdue’s Discovery Park runs the program. The interdisciplinary center hosts a variety of programs for would-be entrepreneurs at Purdue, including the Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy and an annual business plan competition, in which the Rhotek team won $9,500 in cash and services to help further its efforts.
"Get used to making mistakes," Ackerman says. "Be flexible and make sure you’re really passionate about it because it can be hard. You’ve got to keep trying until it works"